Year after year, campers, counselors and other volunteers return to the Arthritis Foundation’s Juvenile Arthritis Camps. What keeps them coming back is the “magical circle” of acceptance, connection and fun the camps create. Within this circle, camp counselors help kids find the delicate balance between pushing their limits and listening to their bodies.
Thirty-three year-old Joel Cencius, from Milwaukee, WI, has experienced the benefits of camp through the lens of both camper and counselor. Diagnosed with polyarticular juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) when he was 4, Cencius attended Camp MASH (Make Arthritis Stop Hurting) in Wisconsin for eight summers until he finally aged out of the program at 17.
Camp had such a positive impact on Cencius that he and his friends made a pact to return as counselors. All made good on their promises, and Cencius is now in his 10th year as a volunteer at Camp MASH, including seven years on the camp’s planning committee.
A Place to Belong
“Camp was the only time I could spend time with kids who had what I had,” Cencius says. “For that week, you felt normal. I wanted the opportunity to have a positive influence on kids who are going through the same things I am.”
Susan M. Zellner, who was diagnosed with JIA at 8, says she became a counselor at Camp MASH for the same reason. “I remember the counselors who made a lasting impact on me. I want to give a similar experience to campers today,” she says. “For campers there is the feeling, maybe for the first time in their lives, that they are not alone.”
Zellner says one of the most rewarding parts about being a counselor is seeing campers connect with one another so quickly.
Cencius agrees. “Camp provides an environment where they can let their guard down, talk about their illness and ask questions to people their own age who understand what they’re going through,” he explains.
Jim Salanty, vice president, U.S. Rheumatology of AbbVie, one of the sponsors that help make JA camp possible, says providing a safe space for kids to bond is part of the company’s mission to foster positive experiences for children with arthritis.
“Not only does camp provide access to important resources for disease management and support, it also offers these children with the valuable opportunity to meet and connect with others who may be navigating a similar journey living with their condition,” he says. This is AbbVie’s second year as a JA camp sponsor.
Camp traditions add to the sense of belonging. The JA Camp in Estes Park has hay rides and “town nights” of go-cart riding and other adventures. Camp MASH kids look forward to their “off the hill” night, when they leave camp (which is on a hill) for a surprise activity in town.
Cencius says his favorite tradition at Camp MASH is when campers and staff lock arms and sing “Lean on Me” at the closing ceremonies. He recalls a touching moment when a counselor with juvenile dermatomyositis, one of the more rare forms of arthritis, got emotional during the song. “It was his first year as a counselor and he met three campers who had [juvenile dermatomyositis] which blew his mind because he’d never met anyone else with it,” he says. “We locked arms to sing and he just broke down, because here was this amazing, incredible place he wished he’d known about when he was a kid.”
Redefining Personal Limits
Making lasting friendships is a huge part of the camp experience, but camp is also a great way to have fun and blow off steam. Campers can choose from various activities, from horseback riding to hiking, to swimming and arts and crafts, says Julie Butscher, the volunteer director of JA Camp in Estes Park, CO.
Butscher’s son and daughter, who both have JIA, have so much fun at camp that they’ll only agree to summer vacations that don’t overlap, she says. Butscher stresses the independence and confidence these activities can help build.
“We want campers to have enough activities, so they’re pushed to know what they can do, but have the time and ability to say, ‘No, I can’t do that,’” she says. “Counselors help kids learn to set their limits and make decisions that are best for them,” she explains. “That’s one of the strongest experiences kids get when they leave camp.”
Campers also learn more about their arthritis in formal activities led by the medical teams, and firsthand from their peers. “This can be powerful experience,” Butscher says.
“Last year our counselors-in-training [kids aged 14 or older] talked to the other kids about their arthritis and how it’s affected them. One girl talked about bullying and how the one thing that got her through it was talking to her camp friends,” she says. “Arthritis can be such an isolating disease, and to the kids, these camps feel like a place they are accepted. These camps are life-changing for the campers and their families.”