Challenging the Stereotype of a Camp for Children with Serious Health Challenges

Rebecca Foster, age 21. New volunteer in 2017

This summer, I spent a week volunteering at a residential camp for children with serious health challenges. The charity that runs these camps is called Over The Wall (OTW). Whenever I told anyone that the children at OTW all dealt with serious health challenges, people often weren’t too sure what to say. Understandably, talking about children being ill is not something that people tend to feel comfortable doing. However, the magical thing about OTW is that it puts any labels of conditions, illnesses or diseases to one side during camp and simply let them be children and have loads of fun. In the words of Paul Newman, the founder of the network of camps that share OTW’s vision, let them raise a little hell!

In order to focus on the campers as people instead of children with health challenges, the army of volunteers that OTW recruits each year are not told about the medical histories of any of the children apart from any essential information in order to keep them safe during the week. OTW seeks to make camp a really happy place; even the routine of taking daily medication was fun! The designated doctors and nurses at camp were referred to as ‘beach patrol’ and each team of children (split into boys and girls in 4 different age categories) had their very own doctor or nurse so that they built trust with that medical professional and didn’t feel that everyone knew their business. All campers visited the beach patrol ‘hut’ together so no one felt like they stood out; all the other campers knew what it was like to take medication every day and could understand each other. Even more wonderful was that the doctors and nurses were known by their first names, wore bright pink t-shirts and spent time with the teams whenever they could which helped to make them seem like normal human beings.

Another topic that frequently came up when I talked to people about OTW was how much children with serious health challenges could actually do. Well, that was the inspiring thing about camp!! Even children with physical ailments gave activities such as rock climbing their all and were able to achieve so much with the support of their fellow campers and the volunteers. The children were given plenty of rest opportunities including a designated ‘rest hour’ after lunch each day so that they could recuperate and enjoy each activity to its fullest. Activity Leaders were briefed on each child’s capabilities and activities were adjusted accordingly so that they were fun and inclusive for all.

As a first time volunteer at OTW, I had heard of the ‘camp bubble’, but really had no idea what to expect. I was amazed by the happy atmosphere that radiated throughout camp and how easy it was to forget that each child at camp was managing their own health challenge. OTW’s work is absolutely vital and I could not be happier that I found out about it and was lucky enough to volunteer. I would really encourage you to think about volunteering because it really will have such an impact on you, not to mention leaving a long-lasting impact on the campers.