With the wind in her hair and a smile on her face, a young girl flies through the air on the zip line at Camp Wekandu. She waves to her fellow campers on the ground and offers a thumbs up before the ride ends and one of the camp counselors lowers her from the zip line directly into her wheelchair.
Although the experience of a zip line is a thrill for anyone, it represents unprecedented freedom for a child with arthritis who has spent much of their life in a wheelchair.
Today, sleepaway camps for kids and teens with arthritis and other rheumatic diseases are held during the summer and fall in locations across the country. These camps are staffed by volunteer rheumatologists, nurses and others, who ensure every child has a safe and memorable experience.
Daniel Lovell, MD, MPH, a pediatric rheumatologist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, has been leading the weeklong Camp Wekandu, held near Cincinnati, Ohio, for more than 30 years. Today, Dr. Lovell serves as the camp’s medical director.
“When our camp was first launched, we had many kids in wheelchairs, and all participants had physical limitations that prevented them from attending traditional summer camps,” Dr. Lovell says. “Our camp provided a unique venue where kids could enjoy camp activities that were adapted to their ability levels.”
Thanks to medical advances, Dr. Lovell says it’s now rare to see kids using wheelchairs or crutches at camp.
“We typically have one or two campers each summer with physical limitations, but we also have the ability to adapt activities, such as the climbing wall, rope course and the zip line, to accommodate children of all abilities,” Dr. Lovell says. “Some kids have been hesitant to try different activities because of their arthritis, but our camp gives them the opportunity to challenge themselves in a safe and supportive environment.”
Although kids at arthritis camps participate in many of the same activities found at a traditional summer camp, Dr. Lovell says the difference at arthritis camp is they can set their own pace, and if they’re limping or need to take a break, no one questions it.
The Arthritis Foundation also offers camps for children. “Our juvenile arthritis camps are medically supervised by pediatric rheumatologists, rheumatology nurses, mental health professionals and other healthcare professionals who volunteer on site,” says Liz Atchison, director of Juvenile Arthritis Family Engagement for the Arthritis Foundation in Minneapolis. “At our camps, kids and teens gain a greater understanding of their own diagnosis and treatment, develop peer-to-peer support, increase independence and self-confidence, and discover new skills and interests.”