A Dose Of Carefree Living

By Silvana Clark
Photo Courtesy Of Alan Clark

The entrance to Camp Boggy Creek looks like most summer camps. As a former camp director, I noticed the typical “Welcome” sign greeting campers, along with colorful wooden arrows pointing to the arts-and-crafts center, theatre, riding stable, and pool. As a group of campers walked by, they proclaimed their loyalty to the camp with a typically loud and enthusiastic cabin cheer.

But the camp, about 45 minutes from Orlando, Fla., is anything but typical. With the help of 1,600 volunteers each year, it provides children ages 7 to 16 diagnosed with serious or life-threatening conditions, including hemophilia, craniofacial disorders, cancer, ventilator-assisted disorders, spina bifida, and transplants an opportunity to enjoy a carefree, fun-filled experience. One 7 year old—diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia—endured 156 visits to his oncologist, 134 days in the hospital, and 39 surgical procedures in addition to several rounds of cranial brain radiation. Yet at Boggy Creek, he was simply a “camper” dunking his counselor in the pool and creating wooden masterpieces in the wood shop.

A Serious Subject
Camp Boggy Creek is a member of the SeriousFun Children’s Network, which some people know as The Hole in the Wall Gang Camps, founded by Paul Newman. His dream was to host camps where kids could kick back and “raise a little hell.” Today, there are 30 camps and programs worldwide, offering children the chance to increase their self-esteem. Whether a camper is singing a solo at the talent show or sharing his or her fears about an upcoming surgery to a fellow camper, the SeriousFun Network helps children build confidence.

“All the best things about camp are intensified at a SeriousFun camp—each child is a part of something bigger than themselves,” says Marla Coleman, founding board member of Roundup River Ranch, a SeriousFun Camp in Dotsero, Colo. “They are a belonging, contributing member of a community that cares about each other, that has a culture of understanding and respect, and that champions independence and resilience. As a camp professional, I get to see first-hand how ‘camp gives kids a world of good.’ And I witness, time after time, children embracing the supports and opportunities of camp: they leave camp with much more than they came with! Often, the experience is so life-altering that you can actually see the changes in their countenance and attitude!”

Just Being Kids
As all children want to fit in with a group, the camp helps campers understand there are other children going through the same medical treatments. “I don’t have to explain why I have a scar on my chest when I’m at camp,” one camper explains. Kids feel no shame in being bald, having a pacemaker, or being confined to a wheelchair. There’s also no stigma attached to going to The Patch (where kids get patched up) for medication or any number of surgical procedures. The Patch looks more like an activity center than a facility related to medicine or illness. The camp has a full-time doctor and nurse, along with eight to 10 nurses and three or four doctors available around the clock for summer campers. Hilarey Carey, executive director of CampKorey in Carnation, Wash., has volunteers ranging from RNs to APRNs to occupational and physical therapists, along with psychologists. “We have fantastic working relationships with many regional hospitals that promote and endorse our programs,” she says. “They also help recruit volunteer medical staff.”

It’s difficult to distinguish medical staff from the “fun” staff, as everyone wears T-shirts and colorful clothes. (Although I did hear the medical staff got doused with an extra dose of pudding and spaghetti during the food fight!) The camp even has portable ventilators carried by counselors called “Breathing Buddies” so children requiring breathing assistance can splash in the pool like everyone else. There’s also a designated place for a medical helicopter to land in case of an emergency. Whether there is a need for chemotherapy, a dialysis treatment, or just a typical skinned elbow, parents can be assured their children have the best possible care.

Positive Programming
Camp Boggy Creek has served over 57, 000 children and families, but none of them have had to pay the approximately $2,500 it costs for a week at camp or to attend a retreat. Additionally, there are 20 disease-specific, family-retreat weekends when as many as 32 campers bring their families for more activities, games, and arts and crafts. Along with wacky fun, the retreat weekends provide the opportunity for all of the parents to share the challenges that come with raising a seriously ill child.

The uplifting spirit surrounding the camp surpasses the sight of scars and bald heads. Campers hear the word “yes” over and over. “Yes,” you can be transferred out of your wheelchair and scream while riding the zip line. “Yes,” you can ride a horse or master the ropes course. And evidently, “Yes,” you can toss water on guests as they walk along cabin row during the ever-popular “Water Day.” I’m just glad I didn’t show up on Food Fight Day!

Silvana Clark has spent the last 20 years traveling the country providing keynotes and training to camps and recreation groups. She’s now looking to settle down and work at a camp where she can use her experience and off-kilter creativity. Reach her at www.silvanaclark.com .