While browsing Facebook over the weekend, I came across a post I see every year around this time: Sign up for MDA Camp! This post, shared by my younger brother who’s been a volunteer counselor since he was old enough, got me thinking. I had 11 years at MDA camp. They were always the highlight of my summer, and I missed my friends after the week was over. When I talk about it to other people, they understand the concept of camp, but they don’t get the concept of MDA Camp. The two are very different things. I thought today was a good day to explain just how different they are. I’ll also explain why MDA Camp was one of the best things that ever happened to me as a disabled person.
What is MDA Camp?
For those that don’t know, MDA Camp is a week long overnight summer camp for kids 6-17 who have Muscular Dystrophy (MD). During camp, campers are each assigned a counselor to help with whatever they need or want to do. All activities are made accessible, including things like rock climbing, zip lining, and horseback riding. You do crafts, sing karaoke, pull pranks…the full camp experience! But there’s something MDA Camp has that other camps don’t: MD.
The MD is the Best Part?
You wouldn’t think that the disability requiring the need for a special camp would be the best thing about it, but hear me out. Camp is a social time. For lots of kids, including myself when I was that age, it was the only time I saw kids like me. I didn’t have friends in wheelchairs. I didn’t know anyone who used a vent to breathe. Even if I did, we weren’t close and they were a “scary adult”. But year one of camp, I met 50 people who were like me, of all ages. My first camp friend and I bonded over having the same color of wheelchair. It was simple, but it had never happened to me before.
Having kids of all ages with MD was another blessing of camp. MD is progressive, and gets worse over time. For example, younger kids with Deuchens might still be able to walk, but older kids might already have a trach. The beauty of this is it somewhat normalizes the change. When I needed a bipap for sleeping, I wasn’t as nervous because I knew 10+ people who used it. When I got older, I was able to be that example for the little kids. These changes are always going to be scary and sometimes unpleasant, but camp made them less so.
Like all camps, MDA Camp did a lot of fun activities during the day. We made candles, we had relay races, and went canoeing. Nobody was left out of these activities because of their disability. For a whole week, nobody had to wonder, “can I physically do this?” You were never required to participate, but you were highly encouraged. There have been several occasions where people can’t believe I’ve been zip lining. Honestly, neither can I. I hate heights!
Looking back, some of my favorite activities (aside from chilling in the cabin and talking) were the ones that incorporated our disability. For example, one year there was a contest for “Best Decorated Mobility Device”. We spent all day crafting for our wheelchairs, scooters, or shoes if the person could walk. Another time we got to drive over paint to make art, which was a personal favorite of mine. These are all things you can’t get at a non-MDA Camp!
It would be a tragedy if I didn’t make mention of how awesome the counselors are. They’re volunteers, and each camper gets one. At my camp, they tended to be college-age to early 30’s, but there was a wide range. Regardless, all of them were spectacular. Why am I making specific mention of them? One reason is because my two brothers are counselors and they tease me about being too old to go now. The real reason is because Camp wouldn’t be possible without them. My counselors pushed me to try things I was scared to do but ended up loving.
Truth be told, my first thought was that it’s a bit early for a blog post about a camp in June or July. But my hope, with posting this now, is that someone who sees this knows someone who could use Camp. Maybe you know a kid with MD who would make a good camper. You know even know someone who’d want to be a counselor. Or maybe you would make a good counselor. Waiting until the summer would be too late. If you take nothing else from this post, know that this week changes lives, and I’m so grateful for the memories I made every summer.