In 1989, eight-year-old Gina Yocum attended Camp MASH in Wisconsin for the first time. She had so much fun at JA Camp that she went back the next summer – and then 28 more after that. For the first 10 years, Gina attended camp as a camper; this June will be her 20th year as a staff member.
A Priceless Experience
When Gina made her first venture to Camp MASH (Make Arthritis Stop Hurting), it was one of just a handful of JA Camps nationwide. Today, JA camps in 25 states serve kids coast to coast.
Arthritis Foundation JA camps are sponsored nationally by AbbVie, Alpha Omicron Pi and Genentech, and staffed by volunteers, including medical professionals. Thanks to sponsorship and donations, the cost of camp is low (or in some cases free), yet for campers and their parents, the experience of attending JA camp is priceless.
“Fostering positive experiences, providing invaluable resources and offering a space for support within the JA community are core objectives at AbbVie, and key reasons why we fund camp,” says Jim Salanty, vice president, U.S. Rheumatology, AbbVie.
Learning and Fun
In addition to offering traditional camp activities – such as horseback riding, swimming, dancing, ropes courses, campfires, and arts and crafts – JA camp offers specially tailored content for kids with arthritis.
“Every activity has a psychosocial, developmental or a therapy goal,” says Gina, who is a child life specialist by profession. “A big part of camp is learning about your disease and learning life skills. But as far as having fun, we could really play anything – it’s being together that makes it special.”
Logan B., 16, who has attended Camp Dakota in Michigan the past three summers, agrees. “Activities are great fun, but the best part is hanging with friends at the cabin and around campfires,” he says.
Making Friends and Fitting In
For some campers, the kids at camp are the first ones they meet with arthritis. That was true for Gina, who was diagnosed with arthritis at 11 months, and for Logan, who was diagnosed with polyarthritis at 11 years old.
And, in a world where arthritis is “considered an old person’s disease,” JA camp is a place where kids with arthritis fit in. “You feel like you can be yourself, because in other places you get ridiculed sometimes because people don’t understand,” says Logan. “But here that doesn’t happen because everyone knows what you are going through.”
“It is comforting to get to be ‘normal’ for a week,” echoes 16-year-old Kendall I., who has attended camp for six years.
As such, friendships made at camp often become close and long-lasting.
“I am still really good friends with some girls I met at camp almost 30 years ago, says Gina. “We still support each other after all of these years.”
Likewise, Kendall says she keeps close ties with camp friends through lots of texting, snap chat and social media.
Returning as Role Models
Like Gina, many campers return as adults to help a new generation of kids with JA.
“When I was a camper, the staff was made up of volunteers from AF and the Children’s Hospital of Milwaukee,” says Gina. “Now 90 to 98 percent of our staff every year are former campers and other adults who have juvenile arthritis.”
Seeing and being with young adults who have thrived despite arthritis is another positive of camp, says Gina.
Logan and Kendall say they see themselves volunteering in the future, too. Logan has been a counselor in training for the past two years and will be a junior counselor this summer.
Helping Kids Blossom
Camp teaches kids how to swallow pills, how to give their own shots and how to cope with the disease, but perhaps what’s most meaningful for parents is seeing their kids blossom after camp, says Gina.
“I saw so much change in him,”, says Debbie, Logan’s mother. “Accepting his disease and seeing other kids with JA and just growing up and being without us.”
Kendall’s mother, Tracy, says that dropping her daughter off at camp for the first time was a 20-to-24 hour round trip. Now her daughter attends a closer camp, but Tracy says she would make the long drive again in a heartbeat if she had to. “She has made lifelong friends and has such a good time every year,” she says. “It couldn’t be any better and has been a real blessing to sign her up every summer.”