FITTING in at summer camp is difficult enough. Imagine the challenge of doing it with a rare disease that only a handful of kids in the province truly understand.
One North Vancouver camp has been designed to tackle that challenge head-on. Every summer, kids diagnosed with juvenile arthritis, lupus, Wagner's disease and juvenile dermatomyositis come to Camp Capilano for three-and-a-half days of fun tailored to their needs.
Now in its 30th year, things have come full circle. Kids who originally came as campers are now helping to run the show.
For 19-year-old Andrea McGowan, it is the least she can do to say "thank you" for the life-changing experience she had coming to the camp as a youngster.
"This place helped me so much as a kid that I'm happy to give back and help the kids now. I remember my old counselors," she said. "I'm just very excited to help kids now and hopefully be around and watch them get better. It's been really rewarding to give back."
McGowan first came to the camp when she was 10, having lived with juvenile arthritis since she was two years old. Attending the camp that year and in the years that followed gave her a chance for the first time to meet other kids with the same illness. Some of those fellow campers have become life-long friends.
"Physically, (the disease) challenges you, and it makes you a little bit different, so here is where everyone is pretty much the same, and these are the people who are the closest to understanding what we're going through," she said.
That doesn't mean the kids prefer to sit still. From an outsider's perspective, Camp Capilano looks like any other kids' camp. This year, participants have been dragon boating, playing volleyball, rock climbing, playing laser tag and doing aerobics. The difference is the quiet patience the kids and counselors have with each other.
"We all set our own paces. If I need to slow down, these people don't ask me why, and they don't think it's any different. If I'm limping, they think it's regular," McGowan said. "They make it very easy for us to do whatever we like. They're very accommodating. It's a very individual-focused camp."
The camp has an educational component as well, encouraging kids to learn about their own and other childhood diseases. A favourite activity each year is a Jeopardy-style trivia night in the dorm.
"It's anything from sports teams to medicine names," McGowan said.
Watching a new crop of kids come in, McGowan said she sees the invaluable experiences she had on her first camping trip playing out again for a new generation.
"A few are homesick, but most of them just love it. I think they are finding it so surprising that we all have so many similarities, and we understand what joint pain means when we're stiff in the mornings. We all know that arthritis isn't just an old-person disease," she said. "A lot of these kids have just been diagnosed.
"One little girl here was just diagnosed a couple months ago, and she's still adjusting to it, so this will be great for her."
The camp is funded entirely by the Arthritis Society. It is the only camp of its kind in Canada, according to organizers.
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