Shriners Children’s Camps: All About Giving Kids Opportunities
School is back in session. The blistering days of summer have mostly faded into the cooler breezes of fall. That means Shriners Children’s has wrapped up another season of camps designed to give patients the opportunity for extraordinary experiences and, most importantly, to just let kids be kids.
Camps sponsored by Shriners Children’s are free for our patients and staffed by volunteers, recreational therapy and child life specialists as well as other hospital staff members. Many camps are outdoor-related during the summer months but some locations offer winter activities as well.
After two years of not having in-person camps, Shriners Children’s resumed these offerings in 2022.
Maureen Johnston, a child life recreational therapist with Shriners Children’s Twin Cities, said she can’t describe what it means to have a full season of camps and what it means to kids throughout the healthcare system.
“My heart is overflowing with joy, gratitude and appreciation. I realized how important these events are to the kids and their mental well-being, but also to me and how lucky I am to love what I do,” she said. “These kids continue to help me grow and they all have a special place in my heart. I really do have the best job.”
Shriners Children’s locations that offer camps include Boston, Lexington, Northern California, Ohio, Portland, Salt Lake City, Texas and Twin Cities, among others.
Here is a look at some of the offerings from across the country.
Shriners Children’s Boston
Each summer, Shriners Children’s Boston patients have the opportunity to attend the Arthur C. Luf Children's Burn Camp, which is offered by the Connecticut Burns Care Foundation. The camp provides an accepting and safe environment for kids aged 8 to 18 to enjoy a traditional outdoor camp experience among children just like them.
At Burn Camp, children from all over the world enjoy everything you might expect: campfires, hiking, fishing, archery, boating and a challenging ropes course. An all-volunteer staff is comprised of firefighters, a burn unit medical team, nurses, physical therapists, burn survivors and, most importantly, graduated campers who want to come back as counselors.
The goal is to build each child’s self-esteem and self-confidence so they are able to overcome their anxieties and adapt to their injuries for reintegration into their family and community life.
With a judgment-free zone, laughter, camaraderie, understanding and love, kids build skills to take into the world.
“Shriners has trusted us with the opportunity to unite their burn community with The Arthur C. Luf Children’s Burn Camp family,” a colleague from Burn Camp shared. “A union that has allowed many, many children to enjoy a chance, year after year – until they are 18 – to just be a kid. And what does this result in? Friendships that last forever!”
Burn Camp 2022 was a great success. The kids were challenged on the ropes course. They cooled off on the water slides. Many bullseyes hit the archery target and the embankment beyond! Space was the theme this year, so a portable planetarium was brought on site and campers enjoyed two new programs: a survival course and an improvisation acting class.
Campers gathered around campfires at the end of the day at their respective cabins. A week of fishing, hiking, swimming and fun culminated with the annual dance/pizza party on Friday night with a DJ marking the end of another great camp year.
Shriners Children’s Lexington
Camp Fez is a three-day, two-night camp hosted at the beautiful Camp Horsin’ Around facility in Perryville, Kentucky. There are separate camps for boys and girls, held during the first two long weekends in the summer. Camp Fez offers a camp experience for children and teens with orthopedic conditions who receive services at Shriners Children’s Lexington.
After a two-year hiatus, the girls’ camp returned in June but the boys’ camp was put on hold for one more year.
Campers experience many adventurous outdoor activities, including fishing, swimming, a rock climbing wall, paddle boats, archery, miniature golf, team-building games, creek adventures, evening bonfires and crafts. The staff strives to provide a barrier-free camp experience and adaptations are made by the camp counselor crew.
“The benefits of Camp Fez are endless! These include independence, increased self-confidence, increased self-esteem, leisure exploration, learning to make choices, social benefits of making new friends, and so many opportunities to have lots of fun,” said Beth English, a certified therapeutic recreational therapist at Shriners Children’s Lexington and one of the Camp Fez organizers. “For many of our campers, this is the first experience they have had in spending an extended period of time away from family. Campers are provided an opportunity to build independence during manageable daily life challenges in a nurturing camp environment with counselor and peer support.”
Frazann Milbern, also a certified therapeutic recreational therapist, agreed that the benefits are immeasurable and it is amazing to watch each child grow.
“The kids that attend our camps are so excited to be around kids with similar disabilities. They make friends that last a lifetime,” she said. “At the end of each camp, the kids tell me, ‘I love this camp because here no one makes fun of me and I can be myself.’”
Campers are not the only ones who make memories to cherish over the years.
“I once had a young boy who wanted to attend but didn’t want to be away from home. So I allowed him to call and talk with his mom the first night,” Milbern said. “By the second night he told me, ‘I got this. Just tell her I am fine.’ It is so rewarding to watch as he became secure and independent to the extent that he didn’t need to talk with his mom.”
English said she feels the same way about priceless memories made.
“Don’t you know? What happens at camp stays at camp!” she joked. “There are so many positive memories and funny moments. I had a camper who really wanted to climb to the top of the rock wall, but every time we got her in the safety harness and up to the wall she would let her fear win. Finally, her second year at Camp Fez, with the support of her peers and a few attempts, she made it to the top! The smile on her face will forever be in my heart.”
Camp Fez is expected to return for boys and girls in June and July of 2023. The staff members said they are thankful for all the donors that make Camp Fez possible for the campers year after year.
Shriners Children’s Northern California
The kids at Camp Winning Hands aimed for the stars during 2022’s outer space-themed event.
The overnight camp is organized by Shriners Children’s Northern California in partnership with UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital. It is hosted by the Taylor Family Foundation at Camp Arroyo in Livermore, California. The Taylor Family Foundation provides a beautiful facility and camping experience at no cost to families. There is a schedule with three days of organized activities – wall climbing, dancing, and arts and crafts.
Some of the hand differences they see in campers include:
- Missing arm, hand or fingers
- Webbed or fused hand parts
- Extra fingers
- Undergrowth of hand parts
- Overgrowth of hand parts
- Constriction band syndrome
The overall goal, like many other camps, is to give kids without the benefit of two fully functional hands a chance to explore their potential in a safe and supportive environment, as well as make new friends, gain new confidence and have fun.
Shriners Children’s Ohio
Nothing says summer for Shriners Children's Ohio patients like Camp Ytiliba. (That's ability spelled backwards and pronounced ya-til-i-bah!)
Established in 1990, Camp Ytiliba was designed to offer children who sustained a burn injury the chance to experience summer camp. After a hiatus and then a virtual experience, the camp returned to its roots at Camp Kern near Dayton in 2022.
“It was a completely different camp being in person versus during COVID,” said Colleen Beckman, a nurse at the hospital and a counselor. “Having that personal interaction with the other counselors, the whole group of kids and the kids individually makes all the difference in the world. It was much more personal and I feel we really got to know the kids better.”
During their week-long adventure, campers enjoy fishing, horseback riding, canoeing, swimming and nature programs. They accept new challenges, gain confidence and rebuild self-esteem. Campers make new friends and renew old friendships. Most importantly, they are able to forget about their differences and get back to the business of being a kid.
“Camps provide the kids with a secure environment with other kids with similar issues to just be themselves and not have the everyday pressures/stress that comes with being ‘different.’ It’s a time to recognize their uniqueness and the inner strength that they possess in dealing with their issues and moving forward in their lives,” camp counselor Tyra Valenzuela said. “For camp counselors, I think it’s an opportunity to spend time with the kids/patients when they are not at their worst and to simply enjoy that time in a no-pressure, fun-filled environment.”
Volunteer Kylle Kelly echoed those sentiments.
“Camp Ytiliba gives the kids a chance to connect with other kids who have had some similar experiences of being hospitalized or being injured,” she said. “A moment that stuck with me was watching two 13-year-old girls, each with multiple finger amputations, hold hands. It’s such a normal thing that 13-year-old girls do, but I wondered how often their friends at home touch their hands. There is a magic healing in the connections the kids forge at camp.”
The staff consists of hospital employees, including occupational and physical therapists, social workers, nurses and child life therapists. Campers enjoy spending time with their hospital caregivers. Parents have peace of mind knowing their kids are among friends who also happen to be world-class burn care specialists.
“My favorite camp memory from this past year was watching the kids help each other,” said counselor Emily Burke. “From one of the kids helping someone push their wheelchair, to helping carry plates to the table, to reminding each other to reapply sunscreen before I even had the chance. That type of caring and support was just so heartwarming.”
Thanks to the generosity of donors, we are able to provide this experience with no financial obligation to patients or families.
Lauren is a past camper who returned this year as a junior counselor.
“Camp has truly changed my life for the better. It has made me be more aware, humble and grateful for everything,” she said. “The kids never cease to amaze me and remind me anything is possible. Also, I am so grateful for the friendships I have made through this camp and Shriners [Children's], there is a special bond that isn’t like any other.”
Shriners Children’s Portland
At Shriners Children’s Portland, the Recreational Therapy & Movement Arts Program offers a variety of camps and programs designed to promote an active and healthy lifestyle while increasing the quality of life for patients through outdoor adventure, sports, creative movement, art and social engagement.
Offerings include flat-water kayaking, adaptive bike clinics, gardening, the Junior Rose Parade, gymnastics, adaptive rock climbing, art with the Children’s Healing Art Project, inclusive golf, accessible hiking and so much more.
Instruction, adaptive and other equipment, volunteer assistance and related materials are provided. Siblings are allowed to participate with pre-approval in most activities. Families are always welcome to observe programs and, when possible, family participation is encouraged.
Shriners Children’s Portland offers a wide range of winter programs as well.
Shriners Children’s Salt Lake City
Un-Limb-ited camps, supported by Shriners Children's and our sponsors, are for Shriners Children’s teen patients who are living with limb loss or limb deficiency. Patients from any of the Shriners Children’s locations are eligible to attend. Summer camp is held in July and winter camp is typically held at the end of January or beginning of February.
These camps offer a unique opportunity for teens to gain confidence and form strong bonds with other amputees while learning either adaptive skiing and snowboarding, or white water river rafting and camping in the Utah wilderness. Through activities and sports, Un-Limb-ited camps provide support for teens to better understand and use their prostheses. Through socialization activities and staff support, campers explore issues common to teenage amputees, such as recreation, relationships, body image, bullying and self-esteem, while developing skills for future success.
“I had so much fun and made such great memories with everyone! This camp helped me be able to talk to more people with limb differences and meet different people from around the U.S., which is so cool!” camper Hollen said. “I’m so thankful to Shriners and all of you who helped make this experience possible for me to be able to go to! This was definitely a highlight from my summer!”
The camps are staffed by hospital teams from Shriners Children's physical and recreational therapy departments, nursing, and pediatric orthotic and prosthetic services. Participants receive professional instruction from the National Abilities Center and Holiday River Expeditions. Members of the fraternity participate as well.
Scott Anderson has been a member of El Kalah Shriners for the past 24 years and a member of the Shriners Children’s Salt Lake City board for a decade. Anderson said the inner peace he receives from spending a week with the fun-loving kids who show a tremendous amount of courage and resourcefulness help teach him what is really important in life.
“These Un-Limb-ited camps make a tremendous difference in the campers’ lives through spending time with other kids facing the same challenges and obstacles in life,” Anderson said. “These camps give them self-assurance about themselves and confidence to be themselves.”
Camp includes individualized instruction, equipment, food, lodging and activities for the duration of the camp. Applications must be submitted by April 15 for summer camp and October 15 for winter camp.
“In most cases, these kids are the only amputee in their school and stand out, not only at school but out in the world. For these kid to come together for a week and meet peers with the same challenges gives them the realization that they are not alone in what they experience and feel,” Anderson said. “We constantly hear from parents and their teachers how these camps have changed the camper's outlook and give them confidence to be themselves and go forward in life with a new enthusiasm.”
Shriners Children’s Texas
Shriners Children’s Texas is involved with many different summer camps that work to provide a fun summer camp experience to children and teens of all abilities.
“Camp Janus is a camp for pediatric burn survivors, ages 5 to 18,” said Clayton Collins, clinical education coordinator for Shriners Children’s Texas. “It’s in Burton, Texas, at a facility called Camp for All. They are able to provide camp experiences for our patients and other children with disabilities, beyond barriers.”
Camp Janus is a four-day sleepover summer camp that takes place over Memorial Day weekend. Kids who attend the camp can look forward to traditional summer camp activities like swimming, arts and crafts, and paint ball.
Collins said the camp is also a great opportunity for campers to find community, since it is solely focused on bringing pediatric burn survivors together.
“It’s also like a social network, in a lot of ways,” he said. “It may be our patients, it may be other patients with burn injuries from around the state, and they can come together and, not only have a fun time, but have an enriching experience. There’s a therapeutic aspect to it, as well.”
Shriners Children’s Texas is a partner in the camp and assists in coordinating patients to attend. More information is available at campjanus.org.
Roger Pepper Adventure Camp for Teenage Burn Survivors
Roger Pepper Adventure Camp offers outdoor recreation opportunities for teenagers with severe burns. The camp, which takes place for one week twice a year, allows 12 teenage burn survivors from all over the country to travel to Crested Butte, Colorado, for activities like mountain biking, ropes courses, skiing, snowboarding and snow shoeing.
The camp brings together kids of similar ages for a week of outdoor activities, bonding and personal growth.
“This is a highly focused group of campers, aged 15 to 18,” Collins said. “There’s a lot of personal growth and development opportunities, not just outdoor recreation opportunities.”
More information about the camp is available at adaptivesports.org.
Camp Love Without Limits
Outside the typical summer window, Camp Love Without Limits is fully sponsored and supported by Shriners Children’s Texas and donors. The camp is open to any Shriners Children’s Texas patient between the ages of 8 and 18 who need minimal assistance. Camp Love Without Limits also meets in Burton, Texas, at Camp for All.
“Camp for All is a really special place,” Collins said. “It helps break down the barriers so children can go have camp experiences, like horseback riding, that may have been inaccessible before.”
The camp will meet Nov. 11 through Nov. 13. Campers have the opportunity to stay overnight in wheelchair-accessible cabins, all while being supervised by trained volunteers associated with Shriners Children’s Texas.
“It is a Shriners-led event through and through,” Collins said.
Shriners Children’s Twin Cities
Like all the locations, the care at Shriners Children's Twin Cities extends far beyond the physical walls.
Camp Achieve Summer is a three-day day camp for patients who have a limb deficiency. June Camp Achieve is for 5-8 year-olds. Campers participate in a variety of adventure activities and fun challenges.
“Watching them all convene and meet Monday morning of camp is quite different than the atmosphere Monday afternoon. The quiet, shy kids transform into laughing, giggling and interacting friends like they have known each other forever,” said Maureen Johnston, a child life recreational therapist with Shriners Children’s Twin Cities. “This is the smallest group we have had and, to be honest, after a two-year hiatus there was something extremely special and gratifying about having this small group.”
“I say it every year, but I watched the kids form friendships and saw how they just knew what each other needed without words,” Johnston continued. “Whether handing someone a worm or helping a buddy carry their backpack to the bus, it just happened and it was so cool! Just kids being kids and having fun with each other.”
Camp Achieve then returned in July for kids ages 9-14.
Counselors said you never would have noticed the kids went two years without seeing each other, as they picked up right where they left off in July 2019. Laughing, visiting, sharing updates and just connecting.
It was a busy week filled with adventures.
“Before you know it, the week has ended. Tears are starting to fall as saying goodbyes is so very difficult. Having this kind of connection after a way-too-long pandemic is so good for the soul. You can see it,” Johnston said. “The friendships these kids are building are enriching, empowering and, I think, essential. Watching them grow year over year is something I will never get tired of experiencing. The confidence, the maturity, the selflessness really blossoms as they reach camp ‘retirement’ age.”
Camp Bravo is a week-long day camp for patients with any diagnosis ages 5 and up. Campers spend the week practicing lines and choreography leading up to a final performance. This year, a performance was presented at the Imperial Session in the Minneapolis Convention Center.
“Camp Bravo celebrated its eighth curtain call! This year was no different than the last seven years, when the adults looked at each other, shake our heads and say, “Do you think we can do this?” Then, just like always, these kids amaze us by showing up to work hard, listen (most of the time) and give it everything they have to make the show a success.”
The camp recognizes that each camper is unique. The staff guides them to find their confidence. At Camp Bravo they are just kids, and everyone sees each other that way, too.
“I hope among the lessons the campers took home is that they should be proud of who they are and what they can do, and never doubt their greatness. We all have something important and unique to share with the world,” Johnston said. “I saw our campers coming out of their shells this year, sharing their special talents and having their own personal lights shine bright. How fortunate I am to witness this!”
Achieve Adventure is an overnight camping trip for patients between the ages of 15 and 20 who have a limb deficiency. Campers participate in a variety of physically demanding activities including kayaking and hiking.
This year, campers headed to Apostle Islands National Park near Bayfield, Wisconsin. They met at the Wilderness Inquiry office in Saint Paul. Even the 7 a.m. start time didn’t dampen the excitement of seeing friends that have not been seen for three years.
Besides kayaking, the group went on many hikes around the area. They walked to the beach about a mile away to watch the sunset every night and also spent time just hanging around camp. One group of campers started a kickball game and even went over to the campsite next door and invited those kids to join in the game.
“Our group of teenagers is among the kindest, brightest, most thoughtful, inclusive, funniest, hardest working and most talkative teens I have ever met,” Johnston said. “And the ways they help and support each other is something to see.”
Maddie said she has never been a big fan of camping, but this experience is one she will never forget.
"I’ve made lots of new friends and made unforgettable memories. My tent mates and I made 'friends' with two huge spiders,” she said. “I loved the feeling of kayaking and the fire and telling fun moments around a campfire. I truly will never forget my wonderful experience.”
Fellow camper AB shared those sentiments.
“There is something very special about being around this group that completes me. I will never be able to thank Shriners for starting these camps and introducing all of us to each other,” she said. “It is because of you I have made lifelong friends who I will love forever. It was so cool to also hear many other campers say how much we all mean to them and how we are like family. It is true! I will hold these memories in my heart forever.”
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