Camp offers teens the time of their lives
Dealing with life’s little challenges can be difficult for anyone. For teens coping with life-threatening illnesses, the challenges are enormous and day-to-day life can be a tough uphill battle.
For these teenagers, life is vastly different from their peers. Instead of focusing on friends and social events, they are occupied with treatments and hospital visits. At a time when other teens deal with growing pains, they face surgeries, the possibility of losing their hair or learning to live without the use of their limbs. While other teens feel immortal, these teens understand reality; they know the end can be very near. The Periwinkle Foundation at Texas Children’s Hospital aims to help make their lives a little more normal, even if only for a weekend.
Named for the perennial flower used in the treatment of cancer, the Periwinkle Foundation develops and provides recreational and artistic programs that help patients emotionally, while the doctors help them physically. The foundation and Texas Children’s Hospital launched the first camp for teens in 1998. The first session was called simply “Teen Camp.” The participants of that inaugural weekend were asked to choose a formal name for the camp, and came up with “You Only Live Once,” YOLO for short.
Camp YOLO is held two weekends each year at the Camp For All facility in Burton, Texas; each session hosts about 300 campers and volunteers, and is free for Texas Children’s Hospital patients. A positive, empowering theme is created for every session of Camp YOLO by co-Directors Jen King, Mital Brahmbhatt, and Assistant Director Tahra Peterson. Last fall, the message was “Mission: Possible.” There are a multitude of activities at the camp: high ropes, arts and crafts, horseback riding, paintball, archery and a 50-foot rock-climbing wall with a zip line. Participants gather around campfires, watch fireworks and attend parties. Camp YOLO ends with a symbolic Wish Boat ceremony where campers light candles signifying wishes they made for themselves, the kids in their cabin or the whole camp. When all wishes have been made, they sail the candles across the camp’s lake in a boat.
The camp is staffed by many of the doctors and nurses who help treat the teens. A few former campers have also returned to lend their support. Dr. Bryan Cannon, a pediatric cardiologist, serves as a counselor and contributes to the advisory board. “It just feels stiff and uptight at the hospital, but then [at Camp YOLO, the campers] see me running around, jumping off things and having fun,” says Cannon. “It gives them a different perception of us, and we have a different relationship. I can see the treatments that help the kids, and they can see the nurses and doctors as people who care about them, instead of people who just care about their disease.”
The counselors have very simple goals at Camp YOLO: make camp a fun experience for every participant, encourage them to have fun, and keep order. “After all, they are teenagers,” Cannon says. “When the camp first started, we were basically guessing at what we were doing.” Their guesses were right on the mark. In April, Camp YOLO celebrates a decade of helping teenagers build confidence and gain independence while they fight life-threatening illnesses.
Camp YOLO also allows campers to bring a sibling of the same age range with them. Many times, when one sibling is diagnosed with an illness, other siblings feel neglected or restricted from normal interaction. Often they are afraid that they will hurt or harm their sick brother or sister. Camp YOLO allows them to play games and have fun while having the security of a health professional to intervene if the fun exceeds the limits of the ill teen.
“Camp YOLO is basically whatever they need,” Peterson says. “Whether they need to have fun or have someone to talk to, Camp YOLO is a safe haven for them.”
A year ago, one patient was told she did not have very long to live. One of her last wishes was to attend Camp YOLO. Shortly before she died, she scaled the climbing wall and rode a horse. “She had a big smile on her face, and we gave her a weekend to just be a teenager,” says Peterson.