A week without parents, adventures in the sun, staying up late with friends—for many kids, going to summer camp is a rite of passage. But for kids living with juvenile arthritis and other rheumatic diseases, going to summer camp isn’t something that can be taken for granted. The Arthritis Foundation understands how important connecting with others who have similar challenges and having new experiences is for all children. That’s why for more than 30 years, the foundation has sponsored camps nationwide designed to meet the needs of kids and teens living with rheumatic illnesses. This year, AF received its first-ever corporate sponsorship from AbbVie, Inc., which helped make the experience even more special for its campers.
At first glance, juvenile arthritis camps look like any other camp. You name it, they have it: campfires, singing, storytelling, arts and crafts, swimming, canoeing, fishing, archery, nature hikes, rock climbing, horseback riding and more. The difference is that JA programs are thoughtfully planned so that campers, at all levels of ability and mobility, can participate. In fact, all activities at JA camp can be modified to meet each child’s unique set of needs, says Liz Atchison, Director of Juvenile Arthritis Family Engagement. This even includes zip-lining in some camps, which are built to seat kids with wheelchairs.
But more than anything, JA camp gives kids a chance to build lasting friendships with others who have the same obstacles and limitations. “It’s so much more than a week of fun,” says Atchison. “JA camps make these kids realize that they are not alone. That the way they feel, both emotionally and physically, is OK and that there are others who feel that way too.” JA camp also teaches kids how to speak up when they experience arthritis-related challenges.
This year’s sponsor, AbbVie, provided “Be a Hero” kits to campers, which included activity books, stickers, certificates of achievement and other fun superhero accessories. Its purpose was to provide caregivers a new resource to help support discussions with children about living with arthritis, and to help empower kids throughout treatment.
“AbbVie created this support tool because we are committed to improving education and communication for caregivers and their children living with serious immune-mediated diseases,” says Jim Salanty, Vice President Rheumatology, U.S. Rheumatology at AbbVie, Inc.
For Natasha and Cassandra Tiffany, meeting other kids with JA has been “life-changing,” says their mother, Adeliza Tiffany. Seventeen-year old Natasha, who has attended camp for past two years, says she’s met some of her best friends at camp and loves it so much she wants to become a counselor when she turns 18.
For Cassandra, 13, the best part of camp is that “you don’t have to explain the word arthritis to anyone.” At JA camp, no one bullies you if you have to take a break, or if asks you need help with something. They just get it. Even something as simple as having nap time on the schedule makes a world of difference to the kids, says Adeliza. It makes her girls feel normal, and like it is “OK” that they sometimes require a little extra down time, she says. Click here to read the Tiffany family story.
For eight-year old Brenna Drevlow, camp week is the best week of the year, says her mother, Jodi Drevlow. Brenna, who has attended JA day camp for the past two years, is now old enough to participate in sleepaway camp, and has “literally counted down the days until she can go,” says Jodi. For Brenna’s father, Joe Drevlow, knowing that Brenna can spend a week feeling like a regular kid is a “profound experience” for both him and his daughter. Click here to read the Drevlow family story.
Thanks to this year’s sponsorship, more kids than ever were able to have that same meaningful experience.
But the AbbVie partnership goes above and beyond just investing money. AbbVie also invested their time, providing extra support and sending volunteers so that every kid at camp felt welcome. “We’ve never had this kind of support before, and it has been incredible,” Atchison says of the sponsorship. “They really took the time really connect with the kids and became an integral part of the camp experience.”
“At AbbVie, we believe that it’s both what we do -- and how we do it -- that matter. We are thrilled to support the juvenile arthritis community, and help to afford children living with JA the opportunity to attend camp and build lifelong bonds as they grow and progress in the journey with their condition,” says Salanty.
Parents also benefit from camp and can spend a worry-free week knowing that their children are in the best hands possible. Staff is specially trained and understands the needs of the campers, from shots and infusions, to the importance of breaks and nap-time. Each JA campus also has a medical staff onsite, including a full staff of nurses, and an on-call pediatric rheumatologist available 24/7 in case of emergencies.
Above all, many volunteers and camp counselors also have arthritis, so they understand firsthand what campers are going through. Because of their unique perspective, they are better equipped to handle challenges as they come up, says Atchison. Counselors who don’t have arthritis are usually paired up with someone who does and go through extensive training before camp.
For parents, it’s a relief knowing their kids are being watched over by people who know the disease best, but for campers it’s so much more than that, says Atchison. From a kid’s perspective, these aren’t just camp counselors, they are role models.
“These counselors are examples of what a positive future can look like with arthritis. Many of them have gone to college, have successful jobs and happy relationships. Kids look up to them and think, if they can do it, so can I,” she says.
Beyond all the fun and making friends, it’s gaining this renewed sense of hope that ultimately makes the camp experience so valuable. Kids develop a degree of independence and self-confidence that lasts a lifetime, so that even on the tough days, they are still Champions of Yes.
To learn more about camp opportunities and scholarship availability, visit http://www.kidsgetarthritistoo.org/meet-other-families/juvenile-arthritis-camps/.