In 2015, the Arthritis Foundation committed to offering two National Juvenile Arthritis Conferences in hopes of serving more families affected by JA and related childhood rheumatic diseases. In 2016, the conferences brought in record numbers – more than half of which were families that attended the JA Conference for the very first time. This means that more children, teens, parents, caregivers and young adults were able to connect with others that share the same concerns, struggles, triumphs and Yes moments!
The other half of JA Conference attendees are made up of “veteran” families – those that have attended the conference in the past and return to share in the JA Conference experience. Veteran families wear black lanyards, and are always encouraged to reach out to first-time families (denoted by white lanyards) and welcome them to the conference. Many veterans also serve in volunteer positions on the JA Conference Planning, Host and YA Committees who work together to help to bring the conference to life.
“For me, this year’s event marked my 8th year as an attendee, and after that many years, I’ve learned that no matter where you are in your journey, no matter what your diagnosis, your reason for coming, your struggles, your joys or your everyday limitations – you will find hope here,” said 2016 JA Conference Chair Colleen Ryan. “You will find hope in the stories of your fellow attendees, in the laughter of your children as they discover new talents, in their smiles as they make new friends, and in the lifelong connections you will undoubtedly develop.”
For Julie Butscher of Denver, Colorado, her son Andy (15) and daughter Katie (13), this year’s visit to Philadelphia was their 5th year attending the JA Conference. Both Andy and Katie have juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA), and Julie says, “It is very isolating to parent kids with chronic illnesses. Even your closest friends get “sick” of it. I love [coming to the JA Conference] and being with people who just get it and aren’t judging me.” She continues, “I always get rejuvenated at conference and want to be get more involved with the Arthritis Foundation and support their mission. It was everything I needed!”
While there are so many different breakout sessions to attend during the conference, Julie’s favorite session this year was Saturday’s general session featuring a panel of Young Adults, moderated by Dr. Jennifer Horonjeff, PhD, and panelists Kate Lambos, Joshua James, Ricardo Berrios and actress Grace Bannon. “I love hearing how well adjusted these kids are in their young adult lives. They have all had tough times and have gotten through it. It gives me hope and lets me know that my kids will be okay!”
This year the JA Conference featured a Buddy Program that paired veteran families with new attendees at each location to help bridge connections early on in the conference and give valuable insight on what to expect.
Amy McCormick of Hauppauge, New York and her daughter Kylie (14), returned to the JA Conference for the 6th time this year. When asked about a memorable connection at the conference, Amy said, “Oh, there are too many to count! I adore getting to reconnect with my dear friends whom I’ve known since our first conference in 2010. These families are special to us in so many ways. Many of my closest friends are JA connections we’ve made.” Amy goes on to say, “additionally, this year we were part of the buddy program and we loved getting to know our buddies. There were also families I had “met” on social media whom I was now able to connect with in person! Each of them makes getting through each day of this JA journey much easier. It’s indescribable to put into words how meaningful these friendships are to me.”
Stay connected throughout the year on the Juvenile Arthritis Conference Facebook page where you can get timely updates on information and registration for the 2017 JA Conferences in Houston and Indianapolis!
To get involved in JA Conference volunteer opportunities, please contact Katie BItner at firstname.lastname@example.org.