I never went to summer camp. When I was a kid, my summer days were spent playing kickball in the cul-de-sac with our neighbors, scheming different car-wash-or-lemonade-stand business propositions with my brother, and bemoaning how bored I was to my mom until she singsong-ingly reminded me how school was just around the corner again. And so, because I never actually went, my imagination painted summer camp like “Salute Your Shorts” and books like “No Boys Allowed”. AND SO. When I finally made it to summer camp, albeit about fifteen years too late, I learned something interesting: my imagined ideas, with rows of cabins full of rows of bunk beds… giant mess halls crammed full of loud, laughing kids… shrieks of delight carrying across lakes full of camper-filled canoes… what I imagined was actually exactly what I found.
A few weeks back, I had the opportunity to visit Camp Twin Lakes- a network of summer camps specifically geared towards children facing serious and terminal illnesses, disabilities, and other life challenges. They work closely with over 50 nonprofit organizations referred to as Camp Partners, from Childrens Healthcare of Atlanta to the Muscular Dystrophy Association to even the Georgia Firefighters Burn Foundation… and they give these children a traditional camp experience that becomes so much more: a life-changing, joyful week that lets kids just be kids.
Each week, the Camp Partners change so that the children there can find soul mates in kids just like themselves. The week I attended, it was Camp Walk ‘N Roll/ Camp Krazy Legs- a week for kids affected by muscular dystrophy and Spina Bifida. And my day spent at camp changed me. In a way that I hadn’t even anticipated. I love children. It’s why I wanted so desperately to be a mother. And I cry at Publix commercials. So naturally, I expected that Camp Twin Lakes would make an impression on me. But it was so, so much more poignant and moving than I’d imagined. And it’s all because Camp Twin Lakes is unlike any place I have ever seen in my life.
The cabins are just like any summer camp- except they’re fully climate-controlled and 100% handicap-accessible. The lodge is just like any lodge- except it’s a completely state-of-the-art medical lodge staffed with the best doctors and nurses, unique to each week’s participating nonprofit, where campers can receive serious procedures like chemotherapy and dialysis. The massive swimming pool is zero-entry: perfect for kids with all kinds of accessibility challenges. There’s horseback riding. A treehouse. Zip lining. Canoeing and boating on the lake. Mountain biking (and even adaptive bicycles and tricycles so that everyone can ride.) Archery, tennis, baseball, soccer, miniature golf. Rope courses and rock walls. A radio station. An organic farm. An amphitheatre and a mess hall. Yes. I even ate dinner in a camp mess hall, just like in “Salute Your Shorts”. What an experience. I’ll never forget it.
I watched children that are wheelchair-bound go down the zip line for the first time in their lives, their faces lit up with joy. I listened to pre-teen girls obsess over the dance in the gymnasium, sharing lip gloss and secrets and the names of crushes. I sat in a treehouse with a group of campers, watching them laugh together with nothing but lake, trees, and sky out the windows. And I ate my dinner in that mess hall, campers sitting elbow-to-elbow and excitedly banging on the tables, singing and cheering when the huge traffic light glowed green in the head of the hall.
So you take this amazing place, where children are free to experience the joys of childhood away from labels and confines and a society that isn’t always easy on them. Awesome. But you know what makes it even more awesome? Camp Twin Lakes’ 2012 operating budget is $3.6 million- and as a nonprofit organization that doesn’t rely on government or United Way funding, they’re completely funded by generous gifts from individuals, foundations, and corporations. Over three million dollars. This year. THAT is awesome.
The kids that I met at camp changed me. Those smiles still linger in my mind, their happy faces singing camp songs and eating popsicles in the Georgia sun. Camp Twin Lakes opens their doors to kids with cancer, brain injuries, sickle cell, HIV, developmental disabilities, kidney disease, amputations, burn injuries, blood disorders, heart transplants, diabetes. Kids who are deaf. Kids who are blind. Kids who’ve lost a parent or sibling. Abused and neglected children. Crohn’s disease. Epilepsy. Everything. Really. They even host a week with the National Military Family Association, just for wounded warriors and their families.
Thank you, Camp Twin Lakes, from the bottom of my heart- for welcoming me too. Thank you to Kathy Russell for showing me what life at CTL is like and what makes your organization so wonderful. And thank you to the many sweet kids and teenagers that I met, for reminding me who life’s true heroes are: you. Thanks, guys. You. Are. Awesome.
Atlanta. Wedding. Photographers. Photography. Camp Twin Lakes. Rutledge. Summer.