Camps for Kids With Diabetes, Crohn's and Other Medical Conditions

These health specialty summer camps give kids a chance to have fun with others who have the same medical condition.

For a child with special needs, summer camp can be especially challenging. Specialized camps geared toward kids with specific health issues can provide a safe environment where kids with special needs can thrive among others who share their conditions.

When Kennedy H. was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease when she was 9, her doctor encouraged her parents to send her to a camp dedicated to kids with inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn’s, so she would become more educated about it. At first, her mother was hesitant, worried about sending her only child away for a week to Camp Oasis at Camp Nock-A-Mixon in Bucks County, an hour away from their Landsdale home, where she didn’t know anyone.

But Kennedy had a blast, not only because she swam and rode jet skis, but because she got to commiserate with her new friends about how they handle the effects of Crohn’s. “We’d stay up late and talk about what we’d been through, and it’s really good to know that other people your age are going through the same thing,” says Kennedy, 12.

Now she can’t wait for camp to begin each summer. And her mom is happy too. “The camp taught Kennedy how to identify with her disease better, how to accept it and control it better,” she says. “And because they helped Kennedy, she came home and helped her dad and I.”

How to choose a camp

There are questions families should ask as they research any camp, but for a child with special needs, safety and healthcare top the list. “Talk to the camp to make sure what the camp offers in a facility and schedule is in line with your child’s functionality,” says Tracey Gaslin, executive director of the Association of Camp Nursing. “What should that camper be able to do to adequately navigate the camp experience?”

Ask the camp what a typical day looks like – what time campers get up, what they eat, how they get from one activity to the next, what the property’s landscape is like and how self-sufficient the child must be. Must they bathe or dress themselves? Ask about their healthcare – who is on site every day? Is there a prescriber available? A nurse on-site? How far away is the nearest hospital?

“If the camp tells you there is an emergency medical technician for emergencies, that’s great, but an EMT doesn’t know anything about medication management or preventing a bad cold from spreading throughout the camp,” she says.

Trained staff

Kids with medication regimes or physical or mental challenges may not able to attend a general camp because their needs are too specific and the staff at a traditional camp is often not equipped to adequately handle their special needs.

At Camp Oasis, about 30 volunteer counselors and a medical staff are specifically trained to support the campers who have Crohn’s disease or colitis. About 115 campers, between 4th and 12th grades, come to the camp for a week each August to enjoy typical camp activities, such as archery and arts and crafts.

“Camp Oasis is an opportunity for these kids to still experience the magic of camp and also be able to connect with other kids who have the disease,” says Caneka McNeil, east area education director for the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation, which established Camp Oasis.

Fun and therapy

Shaheim E., 15, loves swimming and playing basketball with friends at Camp Manito. It’s also a place where he can get the therapies he needs for his cerebral palsy. “It’s like a family there,” says his mom, Nikole Everett, from Middletown, DE. “He looks forward to going to camp.”

The camp has a copy of his school individualized education program and incorporates those therapies into his daily activities. For example, swimming is important to help him strengthen weakened limbs, and the camp makes sure he has plenty of time to swim. Beyond his CP, Shaheim learns to socialize and become more independent.

Peer support

Children with specific health challenges may feel isolated and think they are alone. When they attend a camp dedicated to kids just like them, it can be eye opening. “It’s important for kids with Type 1 diabetes to understand that they aren’t the only ones who have to manage this disease, that there are other kids out there who understand,” says Victoria Benyo, program director for the Camp Nejeda Foundation, which serves campers with Type 1 diabetes through residential, day and family camp programs, including a day camp in Stillwater, NJ.

“The emphasis is on fun and developing peer support and social connection,” she says. Kids enjoy typical camp activities like ziplining, swimming and sports. “The only difference is that the other kids, and most of the counselors, have Type 1 diabetes as well and the medical staff are equipped to handle it. Every kid should have a camp experience, says Gaslin.

“Camp is the only place where kids, whether they are healthy or ill or challenged, have an extended period of time with like peers,” she says.

Terri Akman is a contributing writer for MetroKids.

Categories: Camps & Classes, Featured Camps and Classes, Featured SpecialKids, Health, Special Needs Parenting