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Campers connect with support from Children’s Miracle Network

For a few weeks every summer, 7-year-old Aubree Gentzler is just like every other kid – and no one asks about her glasses, the braces in her shoes or what muscular dystrophy means.

“Around November, Aubree starts asking me if she will be going to camp again,” her mother, Ashley Gentzler, said with a chuckle. “She absolutely loves it. It’s a comfort for her to be around kids who don’t get singled out for what they can’t do. At camp, they adapt things so every child can do it.”

Aubree, who lives in Windsor, Pa., started attending Camp Mighty Tykes at age 4 and now goes to Camp Journey. Both camps, held at Leg Up Farm in Mt. Wolf, are aimed at promoting independence, socialization, recreational skills and confi­dence in children with physical or mental developmental delays.

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Children’s Miracle Network (CMN) Hershey supports 11 camps across central Pennsylvania – either directly or through camper scholarships – that welcome some 250 children with special medical needs, said Danielle Sunday, CMN director. More than 150 Penn State Health employees participate, ensuring the resources it takes to run the camps. CMN provides $200,000 in camp scholarships.

“Camp is a rite of passage that every child should get to experience,” Sunday said. “Children’s Miracle Network really focuses on providing experiences that enhance care these children wouldn’t otherwise receive on a day-to-day basis. We can reach a whole host of kids over a three-month period.”

Children come in wheelchairs, with breathing or feeding tubes, with physical and emotional needs, but they all just want to have fun, said Paula Cameron, pediatric clinical care manager at Penn State Children’s Hospital.

“It really helps them realize from a young age that, yes, they may be different from other children, but they can still do some of the same things,” Cameron said. “I think they welcome the reprieve from a life that’s often full of medications, painful procedures and doctor appointments.”

At camp, Aubree has many adventures – everything from meeting horses to feeding fish to playing kickball – that give her exercise and fill in the summer gap in services.

“Aubree has muscle weakness and low tone, so each of these activities gives her exercise and helps her meet therapy goals while she’s having fun,” Ashley Gentzler said. As a mom, she loves that she doesn’t have to worry about Aubree’s medical needs because the staff knows how to handle them.

“It’s unique for parents not to have to worry about that. The respite time is huge,” said Gil Pak, operations director at the Children’s Hospital and CMN advisory board member. For parents whose children go to Vent Camp – for ventilator-dependent children who have conditions such as muscular weakness or neurological disease, spinal cord injuries or spinal muscular dystrophy – it’s literally the only week of year when they aren’t on call 24/7, he said.

A bonus to all the activities at Camp Journey this year – Aubree told her mom she made a new friend.

“As Aubree gets older, kids start to ask more questions about why she’s different,” her mom said. “We tell her, ‘You have to love yourself. It doesn’t matter what other people say.’ But it’s so nice to have a friend who is like you.”

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Children's Miracle Network summer camps

Now in its second year, Summer Treatment Program camp offers elementary school-aged children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder and other disruptive behavior disorders the equivalent of 3 1/2 years of therapy in a five-week camp, said Dan Waschbusch, pediatric psychologist.

Campers’ goals are to improve peer relationships, interactions with adults, academic performance and self-efficacy ― their belief in their ability to achieve goals. They do this in small group settings that teach classroom behavioral skills and how to interact positively with peers, as well as in sports and other activities. Parents are taught management skills and given tools to extend the success at home.

Participants from last year’s camp, modeled after a national program, gave it high marks, with 83 percent of children showing improved behavior and 80 percent of parents reporting it helped them with their parenting skills.

Waschbusch says the camp works because it flips expectations. “Most psychological treatments are office-based where we try to teach skills in our adult world, and it’s up to the kids to translate them into their world,” he said. “At camp, we put treatment into the kids’ world, and we do the translating of how that works.”

Using behavior therapy techniques, the campers earn points, redeemable for recess or toys, for behavior that meets their treatment goals. Parents are kept apprised of their child’s progress through daily report cards.

“Campers get a lot of successes while they are here because we constantly target where they are and see whether they are improving compared to themselves, not others,” Waschbusch said. “Positive reinforcement makes a difference in their behavior.”

The camp is a great vehicle for doing research-based treatment and enhances care, he added. “We use what the kids taught us to improve our in-office treatment,” he said.

 

Owen Zeager, 8, smiles as he rides his bike at the iCan Bike Camp at Spooky Nook Sports Complex. He is wearing a T-shirt with a sun on it and a helmet. Behind him is a gym floor, a balcony and lights in the ceiling.

Owen Zeager, 8, is all smiles as he rides his bike at the iCan Bike Camp.

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Children Miracle Network supports the following camps for children with various conditions:

Camp Setebaid and Keystone Diabetic Kids Camp ­― Diabetes
Camp Journey and Camp Mighty Tykes – Physical and mental challenges
PA Vent Camp – Breathing problems that require a ventilator
Camp Kydnie – Chronic kidney disease
Camp JRA – Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis
Camp Spifida – Spina bifida, a birth defect that occurs when the spine and spinal cord don’t form properly
Camp Echo – Congenital heart conditions
Camp Lionheart – Heart surgery and congenital heart conditions
iCan Shine Bike Camp – Various disabilities
Camp Frog – Epilepsy
Summer Treatment Program – Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and other related disorders

To support medical camps, donate at CMNHershey.org.

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