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Vital Signs

A summer camp that offers more than s'mores

By Jennifer Durgin

Hello, Mudda. Hello, Fadda. / Here I am at Camp Hitchcock. / The other kids are just like me. / We see past disability."

For more than 20 years, children with chronic rheumatologic conditions have been writing home with messages along those lines from Camp Dartmouth- Hitchcock. The mission of the camp— which was established by the late Dr. Joshua Burnett, founder of DHMC's rheumatology section—is to give such kids "a true camp experience," says Dr. Kevin Kerin, the current camp director.

Held for one week each summer at the Hulbert Outdoor Center on the shores of Lake Morey in Fairlee, Vt., the camp hosts up to 40 campers from age 8 to 17. They engage in all the usual camp pastimes—from swimming, canoeing, and fireside sing-alongs to games, ropescourse activities, and arts-andcrafts projects.

"Though we do need to distribute medications, and we have two nurses who are here fulltime," explains Kerin, a rheumatologist, "we try not to make it about that." And the results, he says, are "just tremendous."

Doing more: Over the course of the week, the campers become willing to do more and more on their own, while asking for help when they need it. "In their daily lives, in their families and in their schools," says Kerin, people might "assume that they can't do as much as they might be able to. It's not that we really press them or stress them. [We] just allow them to tell us what they need rather than assuming that we know."

"My parents were pretty cool about not letting me use my disease as an excuse," says Kathryn Runge, who attended the camp for five years and now returns regularly as a counselor. Even so, Runge says she pushed herself harder when she was at camp because "you're surrounded by other kids [with arthritis] who are doing things." Runge, who is now 28 and in remission from juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, also enjoyed the camaraderie she found at camp. "You can complain about being on meds, about doctors," she says, "and they understand."

And when campers are feeling stiff or physically exhausted, "they don't need to explain that to anyone," says Kerin, because the counselors and the other campers understand.

"It is such a community of love and respect and acceptance," says Andrea (Dubois) Carroll, who has juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and attended Camp Dartmouth-Hitchcock for 10 years. Now 27, she too returns to camp each year as a counselor. In 2005, she even raced back from her honeymoon to be there. "It is such a huge part of my life," she adds. Going to camp each year "recharged" her, she says, and "gave me confidence."

First: While camps for children with special needs have become increasingly popular in recent years, Camp Dartmouth- Hitchcock was one of the first for children with chronic rheumatologic conditions. And, according to Carroll, who is admittedly biased, it's among the best. "Camp is awesome!" she says. "It's absolutely wonderful."

At a summer camp run by Dartmouth-Hitchcock, kids with chronic rheumatologic
conditions get to swing on a ropes course and swim in Lake Morey.

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