Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending one of the Arthritis Foundation’s juvenile arthritis (JA) summer camps, one of some 50 JA camps across the country. This experience gave me the opportunity to see firsthand the positive impact our programs are having on kids. Upon arrival at Camp M.A.S.H. (“Make Arthritis Stop Hurting”) in Mobile, Ala., my first observation was how absolutely beautiful the camp is and what an unbelievably special facility they have created.
I arrived around noon and the kids were enjoying their lunch. After lunch, while the kids went back to their cabins for quiet time, I took a tour of the incredible facilities around the camp. I was impressed with the variety of fun activity stations available for the kids, featuring traditional summer camping activities such as swimming, fishing, rowing, arts and crafts, and skeet shooting, to name a few, plus an accessible rope challenge course that allows the kids to experience the outdoors to the fullest. The camp focuses on what kids with arthritis can do, not what they can’t do.
The greatest thing I observed at the camp was the way all of these kids come together and support, encourage and learn from each other. It is truly wonderful being able to experience the joys of summer and the outdoors with these imaginative and creative kids.
There are approximately 100 kids of varying ages attending. Some of the kids who have been coming to the camp for years have returned as young adults in the role of junior camp counselors. In particular, a young man named Grant spoke after lunch about when he first came to camp some years ago. At that time, he was very shy and hesitant to speak in front of a group.
Now he returns year after year and gives back to the camp that helped him develop independence and build his self-confidence. The camp owner, Davis Pilot, who has arthritis himself, has a very heartwarming story about how he came to own the camp. This endeavor is clearly a family affair involving the commitment and dedication of the entire family, including the grandmother, sons-in-law, wife, children and lots of friends lending a hand. Over the years, the family has continued to expand the camp and add special features each year to make this a fun and enjoyable experience for the kids.
The camp theme this week is “Around the World,” and last night’s stop was Germany. In the accompanying photo, I’m standing among a group of committed women who are preparing dinner for the campers they obviously love. We are pulling pork to go along with German sauerkraut, potato casserole, creamed spinach and a host of other delicious treats. We will all have to wait for those delicious cupcakes for dessert I see out of the corner of my eye. The kids will gather after dinner for more fun activities. In the morning, I will put on my chef’s hat again to help cook bacon and eggs for everyone.
The experience took me back many years and reminded me of just how much fun childhood can be. I remember lots of lazy days on the water. The wonderful lake with trees all around is incredibly relaxing. The fully air-conditioned, spectacular and extremely comfortable log cabins are unique and beautifully appointed with tree trunk railings. It’s a bit of paradise. And it’s an opportunity for young people to enjoy the camaraderie of other kids living with juvenile arthritis or related diseases, meet personal challenges, make lasting friendships and create lifetime memories. The camp provides a safe and encouraging environment led by trained staff and volunteers. Health care professionals are on site to tend to any medical needs.
A special thanks to Randy Cron, MD, PhD, and the wonderful team from the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) who have been gracious and terrific partners in supporting this camp. Dr. Cron, a pediatric rheumatologist, has been involved in this camp for a number of years and the campers love him. Led by Dr. Cron, the team also includes Dr. Rob Lowe, Dr. Melissa Mannion, Annelle Reed, CPRN, Linda McAllister, CPRN, and nursing student Kristen Smith.