This year, Camp Joy is celebrating the 40th anniversary of Camp Wekandu, a camp which brings together kids who share the similarity of having juvenile arthritis. However, for 2020, it is being done virtually because of COVID-19. 

A lot of people don’t know this — but for 10 summers, I took part in a special week-long camp for kids with juvenile arthritis.

When I was diagnosed at eight-years-old with Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA) — I thought I was alone. At my elementary school in Lexington, I was the only one in my class driving two hours up the road to the specialist to get their white blood cells drawn.

But Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center Rheumatology Division gave me hope — Camp Joy.

This camp, they thought, strangely enough, would help me cope with my fresh diagnosis.

Nestled in the woods of Clarksville, Ohio, is Camp Joy, which each week welcomes a different group of kids who all thought they too, were the only ones  in their situation.

Foster kids, kids with cancer, kids with diabetes, and ultimately kids with juvenile arthritis — Camp Joy partnered with CCHMC and other groups in Cincinnati to let kids know that others shared their struggles.

Going to camp not only let me meet other kids who suffered the same pain I did — it helped me learn about my disease, and better manage it. Camp “Wekandu,” as it was called, helped me meet other kids who were just as strong and taught me there was power in my weakness.

I stayed a week each summer with other girls and impactful camp counselors who helped me realize I could battle with this disease with others just like me.

We played late-night games, had candlelight chats, and participated in activities I would have otherwise thought I could never do — like a ropes course and ziplining.

And at the close of another successful week at camp, the counselors would put together a slideshow of photos taken throughout the week and sing all the campers a song called ‘Stars in the Sky,’ which they told us to hold onto once we were back home to remind us we weren’t going it alone.

As the chorus says: “Stars in the sky, stars in the sky, bring the summer right back to me. Tell me you’ll try, tell me you’ll try, to think about me whenever you see those, stars in the sky.”

I went for nearly a decade, until I could become a counselor, and failed to do so. To this day, it is the biggest regret of my life that I did not finish. I wanted to be the change for a child — that so many counselors were for me.

With the onset of coronavirus, camps are just one other industry that fell victim, with no immunity, and were forced to close. And with campers of any participating group being so vulnerable with a low immune system, Camp Joy, for the first time in many years, shut their doors.

No ropes course. No education nights. No candlelight chats. No sneaking missions to take ice cream from the cafeteria.

And so I write this to inform the masses that a camp is not always just fishing holes and hikes — but it can provide children with a safe place to land and a haven to come year after year, where they can be reminded that they are not alone.

As the saying goes, there is strength in numbers, and seeing all the other kids who had arthritis like me, gave me strength. 

While so many significant gatherings have been claimed by COVID-19, I hope to make it known, that camps like this, that help kids understand, are equally as important as other agencies.

That — without this camp this year — a child of CCHMC will have a harder time realizing they are not alone.

But I implore those who know the song, and have held onto it, to look up into the summer sky and think of all the memories we made in the forests of Clarksville, Ohio, all those years ago.

Thank you to Camp Joy, CCHMC, Camp Wekandu counselors past and present, and all those who make it happen. I hope you continue to make a difference for years to come in-person, or virtually.

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