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Camp Courage

I wrote this article in May 2012 for the YMCA of Metro Chicago. Because they have failed to publish it in time for the summer camping season, or at all, I have opted to publish it here anyway in thanks to the many participants who made the article possible. There are related articles here and here. — Michael Vitali

Exploring the YMCA commitment to camping

Commemorative paddles at Camp Duncan.

“People think that camp is about the outdoors,” explains Kim Kiser. “But that’s only a small part of it. Camp is character. Camping is finding your inner courage.”

She should know. She’s Camp Duncan’s Executive Director as well as our Group Vice President of Camping and she has been working with young campers for 34 years. Kim has managed a greater variety of unique camping experiences for children than almost anyone in the United States.

“Earlier generations learned about the outdoors much differently than today’s children,” she says. “Camp helps kids become comfortable in a natural environment. Kids are afraid of the dark because they live in lighted cities and towns.

“Sometimes it’s difficult for parents to be comfortable enough to trust us with their children. It’s hard for them to imagine that we will return them safely but as better, more confident kids.”

People are now spending far less time outdoors than ever before, according to Dr. Oliver Pergams, visiting professor of biological sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago and lead author of the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Since the 1980s we have seen steady declines in most of the 16 nature activities we measured.”

The challenges are diverse

The symbolism and significance of the outdoors carry different weight for different groups of people. Many kids’ seemingly irrational fears of the outdoors are actually justified by history.

“Where I come from, you do not go out that door at night and especially into the woods,” says one African-American adult friend of the Y, “because you get lynched. It takes every ounce of willpower because of the way I have been raised to try to counter that. But it’s ingrained because I grew up in the South. I remember my grandmother saying to me, ‘Don’t you ever venture outside this door at nighttime. Don’t you ever go into the woods — ever.'”

The Y treats every camper’s attitude with respect and seriousness, because we believe that camping is a key means of overcoming many different types of challenges — all of which revolve around the exploration of courage. Not courage in the sense of heroics, but courage in the sense of confronting the unknown, of tackling a new skill, and of making friends with people outside your normal circle.

17 specialty camps for thousands of kids

Beyond our day camps and sleepaway camps in Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan, the YMCA of Metro Chicago also hosts 17 specialty camps for kids who ordinarily have little access to a true camping experience.

The sheer variety of Y specialty camps speaks volumes about our commitment to the health and well-being of everyone in the metro area. Our medical camps alone take all kinds of kids and adults that other organizations will not accept into their camping programs for any number of reasons — insurance, lack of training, or the shortage of medically trained staff.

Seventeen specialty camps

The YMCA of Metro Chicago hosts 17 specialty camps for groups whose needs require extra care. These include the following camp groups (and partners):

  1. High school special education students (Richmond High School)
  2. Varying disabilities such as autism, learning disabilities (Glenbard High School)
  3. High school disabilities (Maine West high School)
  4. Middle school disabilities (Echo School)
  5. Deaf and blind (Helen Keller School)
  6. Spina bifida (YMCA Camp Independence with Dr. McLone of Children’s Hospital)
  7. Burn survivors (Illinois Fire Safety Alliance)
  8. Tourette, age 7–15 (Tourette Syndrome Camp Organization)
  9. Family bereavement (Hospice of Northeastern Illinois)
  10. Kidney ailments, age 8–16 (National Kidney Foundation)
  11. Youth diabetes, age 11–13 (American Diabetes Association)
  12. Teen diabetes, age 14–18 (American Diabetes Association)
  13. Reuniting foster care siblings (Hephzibah Children’s Association)
  14. Physical and mental disabilities (Western DuPage Special Recreation Association)
  15. Stuttering (Western DuPage Special Recreation Association)
  16. Mentally and physically challenged adults and children (South Suburban Special Recreation Association)
  17. Mentally challenged adults (Thresholds Psychiatric Rehabilitation Centers)

A Kidney Camp for the record books

“At our kidney camp, which covers many organ transplant-related conditions, we work closely with Nancy LePain of the National Kidney Foundation of Illinois to provide her kids a safe camp experience,” explains Kiser. “These are kids who are waiting for transplants or have just received transplants. The kids leave their homes or the hospital to get the chance to be a kid again for a week at Camp Duncan.

“This past summer (2011) on a Sunday night, we received a call from Children’s Hospital asking for a certain Josh, saying they have a kidney for him. We heliported him directly from Camp Duncan, where we can accommodate medical helicopters, to the hospital. Believe it or not, because he is a city kid he was reluctant to leave camp because he thought he was being punished, but we convinced him that the transplant would be worth it.”

Later the same night, unbelievably, the same hospital called Camp Duncan to locate a girl for whom they had both a kidney and pancreas. Y staff had barely recovered emotionally from Josh’s departure when this incredible new opportunity arose — but they composed themselves, packed her up, and sent her to the hospital. By the end of Sunday — the first night of camp week — both kids had made it through their surgeries beautifully.

Wednesday it happened again. And again. And again. And again. By the time camp week was over, Children’s Memorial Hospital had arranged and completed a total of six successful transplants for Y campers.

Camp Independence and its unexpected triumphs

Conceived in 2008 by Dr. David McLone, head pediatric neurosurgeon of Children’s Memorial Hospital, Camp Independence is the Y’s unique camp for children and young adults with spina bifida. Dr. McLone guided the Y to discover the right way to properly develop and outfit the camp by identifying a few kids age 7 to 21 to stay at a test camp in 2008. The pilot camp, also attended by Dr. and Mrs. McLone, revealed the unique set of medical and physical requirements that would be necessary for a successful camp.

Two years later the Y built a dedicated facility using all we had learned from the test camps. Camp Independence now provides experiences for kids with spina bifida that encourage progressive steps of independence. Staff members teach them how to take care of themselves enough that they at least can go to school — a challenging experience for many. Camp Independence also features a teaching kitchen that shows campers step by step how to act independently to prepare food for themselves and for their families.

Spina bifida is a neurological birth defect that affects the nervous system but not necessarily the brain or mental processes. In the last 15 years, medical advances have enabled individuals with spina bifida to live longer lives — but often without practical training on how to do so independently. Now, as their own parents age, the challenge becomes to help them learn to approach living independent lives on their own.

The camp’s many triumphs have far exceeded both the Y’s and Dr. McLone’s expectations. For example, attempts to “mainstream” kids by blending groups can be problematic. One mainstreaming experiment at Camp Independence was a revelation: on Skit Night, competing groups of campers create their own skits and perform them for one another, with peers voting on which group’s performance will take top honors. The very first time the Camp Independence kids were invited to participate in Skit Night to compete against the unspecialized groups, their original skit won the prize. Everyone agreed that the Camp Independence kids were not pitied or patronized — their skit simply was the best performance of the night.

After Skit Night, the other kids began to ask Camp Independence kids if they were coming to the dance on Friday night, a camp tradition. Dr. McLone was wary of allowing Camp Independence kids to attend the traditional camp dance, but when he realized that the other kids were sincere about inviting Camp Independence kids, he and Y staff agreed to give it a try.

Dr. David McLone is the founder of Camp Independence.

“I was the head pediatric neurosurgeon at Children’s Memorial Hospital for 25 years. If a child has a disability, camping is the ideal way to help them.

“We learned that we could change the future for kids with spina bifida. 2012 will be our fourth summer since we built Camp Independence with a new building by the waterfront at Camp Duncan. Kim Kiser [Executive Director of Camp Duncan] is an amazing woman who really understood what we were trying to achieve.

“The whole idea behind the camp is independence. We integrate our camp with the able-bodied kids, and it’s as good for them as it for the kids with spina bifida. With any disability there’s a level of prejudice out there, but not from the kids themselves. When we’re training camp counselors about what kinds of issues they might be facing, sometimes they turn a little green. But within a week they’re pros. Our counselors are very special young people.

“Grayson Holmbeck is the Loyola psychology professor who has studied my spina bifida kids for 20 years. He has already published research[1] on our experiences at Camp Independence, and has demonstrated actual progress toward independence and also that their new skills are retained over time.

“Our hope is that Camp Independence is scalable. One child in every thousand here, and seven in every thousand in China, are born with spina bifida. Our goal is camps modeled on Camp Independence around the world.”

Wheelchairs on the dance floor

Many kids report that the mingling of wheelchair dancers with everyone else on the dance floor was the most transformative event of camp week for both the spina bifida kids and the traditional kids. Psychologically it was a step forward for Camp Independence kids because they had a real occasion to primp and to dress up — an urgent desire at their age. Thanks to Camp Independence, they felt truly good about themselves as they enjoyed the music and the company.

Everyone knows, kids can be mean — but when they have the right introduction they will protect one another and see to it that each is accepted into the larger group. The confidence such acceptance gives the special population is incalculable. One of the main side effects of camping is real compassion based on real experience.

Tourette’s and the need for acceptance

“Camp Duncan was the only camp that would return my call,” says Scott Loeff, president of Tourette’s Syndrome Camping Organization. He works at O’Hare but has Tourette’s himself. He decided that he didn’t want kids with Tourette’s to grow up suffering the way he did on the outskirts of society.

Tourette syndrome, also called Tourette’s syndrome or simply Tourette’s, is an inherited neuropsychiatric disorder with onset in childhood. Tourette’s is defined as part of a spectrum of tic disorders, which includes transient and chronic physical and vocal tics such as echolalia (repetitive speech) and copolalia (socially inappropriate speech).

With the Y’s help, Loeff started a Tourette’s camp, the second in the nation. The kids who attend his camp have extreme cases of Tourette’s. Many medical campers cannot be integrated with traditional campers because of specific physical compromises. Experts agree that what Tourette kids need most is acceptance from their peers.

One eighth-grade boy with Tourette’s named JP was having trouble finding acceptance due to his repetitive outbursts in class. As a result he was disciplined regularly by his school. One day the principal said that if it happened again he would have to do laps in the gym.

A day later when the next outburst occurred JP was told to run laps until someone came to get him. He started running laps and ran and ran without stopping, because Tourette’s is often accompanied by OCD, obsessive-compulsive disorder.

No one came to get him for three hours. Oddly enough, he liked it — he had the gym to himself where his tics could be expressed without anyone noticing. For those three hours while he ran, he was actually surviving at school.

Thereafter, every day JP was sent out of class and had to run laps. Later it was estimated that he was running anywhere from eight to thirty miles per day. His OCD prevented him from stopping on his own — even after the school admitted they shouldn’t have let him run so much in the first place. The running that initially helped him, eventually became another source of harm to him. He lost 35 pounds. The only friend he said he had at school was the gymnasium itself.

To make one friend

Then JP came to the Y camp, where the practice is to integrate kids with Tourette’s with traditional campers. Even the Tourette’s kids were suspicious of this idea because of the ways they are routinely treated, but Y counselors pointed out that traditional kids have problems of their own: acne, or unknown problems that everyone has but aren’t quite as visible as Tourette’s.

At an assembly of all the children, it was announced that many of the children present have Tourette’s, and the first thing for kids to understand is that it’s not contagious. Some of the Tourette kids were publicly interviewed, so they could explain and demonstrate that Tourette’s is a neurological misfiring of the brain that results in an involuntary action, and they would demonstrate.

None of the other kids laughed. JP was asked what he needed from camp, and he said: “I need other kids not to make fun of me, and I want to make one friend.” By the end of Day One, JP was convinced he would not do well at camp.

Five days later, the camp held its Friday night dance — for which JP had five dates, all traditional girls. Nobody, let alone a girl, had ever liked him in his life. But at camp, for the first time in his life, he became popular. He couldn’t say no to any girl who wanted to dance with him. (Some of the girls’ parents were concerned about how JP might behave with their daughters, but Y counselors assured them that there was no danger and that he would be fully supervised.) Parents of traditional campers now inform us that their kids no longer show discomfort around people with disabilities — and many have gone on to become real friends.

Even Dr. McLone of Children’s Hospital, who advises the Tourette’s program, was surprised by this outcome. Although the camp was an attempt to create a positive experience for Tourette’s kids, it also produced a positive outcome for traditional kids as well.

At least once in a lifetime

The growing success of all Y camps, including our 17 specialty camps, is the result of hard work and careful coordination among our centers, camp staff, groups of campers, parents, and our many organizational partners. Each of these diverse groups brings new insights to the table, and enables us to provide a far-reaching and deeply enriching camp experience for the widest possible range of kids and families.

Seven ways camping makes kids more resilient

  1. New relationships with peers and trusted adults
  2. Confidence in front of others
  3. Feeling competent and in control
  4. Fair treatment without any bullying
  5. Fresh air, exercise and both structured and unstructured time
  6. A better sense of their own culture and those of others
  7. A chance to belong

Source: “Summer Camps Make Kids Resilient,” Michael Unger, Ph.D. February 5, 2012, Psychology Today.

These successes also reflect the essential help of our most profound partners: the donors and volunteers who make our camps possible. They offer the children of metropolitan Chicago thousands of opportunities to explore nature, to dream, and to acquire new skills and life-changing experiences.

The courage to face life with confidence and to live with others is a learned skill. Every kid deserves to go to camp at least once in his or her lifetime because its benefits are all-encompassing. Thanks to our commitment, our programs, our regional scale, and the wisdom of our partners and donors, the Y helps to strengthen character in countless ways through the extraordinary magic of camping.


The Y of Metro Chicago offers day camps, family camps and summer camps at various facilities throughout the Lake Michigan region, including our four resident camps:

Camp Duncan, 278 acres near Fox Lake, Illinois

Camp MacLean, 247 acres in southern Wisconsin

Camp Nawakwa, 180 acres in northern Wisconsin

Camp Pinewood, 200 acres near Muskegon, Michigan

All YMCA of Metro Chicago camps are accredited by the American Camp Association, acacamps.org

ACA offers an online comprehensive summer camp resource for families with expert advice from camp professionals on camp selection, readiness, child and youth development, and issues of importance to families: campparents.org

Find out more — visit ymcachicago.org > camps

Visit youtube.com and search “YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago Medical Camps”

Many leaders in business, science, politics, sports and the arts say that camping was an inspiration to them at a pivotal stage when they were young. For more, visit campparents.org/look-who-went-camp

[1] O’Mahar, K., Holmbeck, G. N., Jandasek, B., & Zukerman, J. (2010). A camp-based intervention targeting independence among individuals with spina bifida. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 35, 848-856.

Photos by Michael Vitali.



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  • Steve Sparr MD says:

    in 1970 I found a cap at Disneyland with the name Mike Vitali on the back and Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club on the front. Are you the owner of the hat?
    Steve Sparr MD

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