Camp helps children in pain

It took Trenisha Washington nine years to let go. Her son, Robert, suffered from juvenile ankylosing spondylitis, and she didn’t want him out of her sight.

Then came Camp Joint Venture. The overnight summer camp sponsored by MCG Health specializes in creating a camp experience for children who have been diagnosed with juvenile arthritis, and related diseases.

At the age of nine, Washington finally let Robert scamper off to camp. And what she saw changed them both.

“He used to feel bad about being sick,” she said. In addition to juvenile arthritis, Robert also struggles with ulcerative colitis and sometimes lamented that he couldn’t run and play like other children. Hebquestioned why he had to be sick. But over time, his camp experiences changed his perspective.

And that’s precisely what the camp is set up to do, according to Camp Director Katie Lawhead, a child life specialist at the MCGHealth Children’s Medical Center. Camp Joint-Venture was started in 2002 by Dr. Rita S. Jerath, a pediatric rheumatologist with MCGHealth, who understood the challenges that children with rheumatic diseases can face.

“When a child can’t raise his arms over his head, camping can seem impossible,” Lawhead explained. “At the every least, the
ropes course is out of the question.” But the campground was designed to help children circumvent those challenges. A team of doctors and nurses accompany the 40 campers to Camp Will-A-Way in Winder, Ga., where they are encouraged to explore swimming, arts and crafts, archery, boating, biking and a multitude of sports activities. Children treated at the Children’s Medical Center for rheumatic disease are invited to attend camp free of charge.

“Everything is adaptable to the kids with limited mobility,” Lawhead said. If a child can’t climb a rope to get to the top of a high ropes course, a lift can transport them into the trees. Access to these experiences can challenge a child’s idea of what is possible, and boost confidence.

“It helped him to improve in his attitude and self-esteem and to accept what is going on in his body,” Washington said. It also gives her a chance to focus on her two younger children, whose needs sometimes can take a backseat to Robert’s medical requirements. That can be crucial to parents’ mental health.

At camp, Robert met other children who suffered similar diseases and learned that he wasn’t even the hardest hit among them. He also got a chance to just be a kid, Washington said.

“Staying up all night and playing pillow fights and water fights – all that good stuff that kids like to do, but can’t do at home without getting in trouble,” she laughed.

For more information, contact Camp Director Katie Lawhead at 706-721-0749.

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