Last Summer I had the honor of being an older camper and camp counselor at Camp Joyful Hearts, a residential summer camp for kids and teens that have heart disease.
It’s such an amazing camp and experience for these kids because they don’t have to feel limited by their heart disease – there is a pediatric cardiologist and cardiac nurses on site at the camp 24-hours a day.
While this might seem like a small thing, for kids and teens who have heart disease, it’s an amazing, liberating feeling.
It was so much fun to see all of these young kids, (and older kids) running around and playing, feeling so free from the normal restrictions and worries they have to face on a day to day basis. Naturally, the kids who had medical restrictions still followed them – but there was a feeling of liberation for everyone involved.
In my role as camp counselor, I got to stay in a cabin with a group of wonderful young girls. I was able to help them with their daily activities and be a role model as well as play with them and do arts and crafts. Every day was a new adventure, from rock climbing, making works of art, watching a fashion show filled with counselors, hiking, canoeing, or making bracelets – there were so many things to do and my campers wanted to do them all!
While I was an older camper at 20 years old, I still learned a lot from this camp and came out of it with some new friends. And I actually still talk to my fellow counselor of the cabin to this day.
The little girls in my cabin taught me so much of what it is to be a heart kid. A heart kid is joyful, loving, caring, energetic, a little crazy, unique, accepting and a friend to everyone! Every kid I met had a smile on their face and was ready to take on the world, with their new and old friends by their side of course!
I was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy when I was 16 years old and it was a big adjustment for me. Sports were a huge part of my life and I had to be more cautious about playing the sports that I love: softball and basketball. I became hesitant about participating in any activity that raised my heart rate (which is the majority of activities), and it was hard for me to feel comfortable even goofing off. What if I pushed myself to hard? What if I passed out?
At camp a lot of that hesitation melted away; there were doctors and nurses there around the clock, so I felt like I was in a safe environment and didn’t have to worry about the “what ifs.” While I cannot understand what it is like to be a young kid with a congenital heart defect; I do know what it is like to have a heart condition as a teenager/adult.
This is where I feel like I contributed the most to the girls in my cabin. Because I have this experience, I could answer questions about the future for the girls. I received daily questions in my cabin about what I can do, where I can and do work, if I have a boyfriend, if I live by myself …and the list went on!
To an outsider – someone who doesn’t have heart disease – these questions may have seemed like typical questions from little girls, but I knew better. They wanted to know what it’s like to have a heart condition and be grown up. Could they too live “normal” lives?
I was honored to help them realize that they can be “normal” teens and adults, the same as everyone else. The only difference is that they might have a few extra friends along the way, who happen to be their doctors and nurses.
And at Camp Joyful Hearts, they’ll be playing marshmallow wars and having shaving cream fights right along with you.
Editor’s note: There are a few spots left for this year’s Camp Joyful Hearts, to be held on June 21-26, 2015. Online registration is now closed; please call 513-803-1841 for late registration by phone.