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Summer camps for kids with medical needs adapt in the face of COVID

Last summer, many medical camps held ‘virtual camps’ because of the pandemic. This year, some, like Camp Ho Mita Koda in Ohio, are in-person but with special protocols.

Some medical camps will remain virtual this summer, while others are easing back into in-person activities with shortened overnight camps, day camps and family camps.
Some medical camps will remain virtual this summer, while others are easing back into in-person activities with shortened overnight camps, day camps and family camps.
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Olivia Klassen’s face lights up when she talks about summer camp.

She loves the scavenger hunt with her camp friends, paddleboarding, swimming in the lake and “kitchen raids.”

But what she loves most is being surrounded by kids who, like her, have Type 1 diabetes — which lets her focus on fun instead of being different.

“Camp is a top priority for me,” Klassen, 13, says of Camp Ho Mita Koda. “I don’t really feel the same without camp. That’s my second family, my home away from home. Being there makes me feel like a normal kid because everyone is doing the same things I do.”

Colette Marquardt: Minimizing the risk of COVID infections is especially important for camps for kids at higher risk of illness.
Colette Marquardt: Minimizing the risk of COVID infections is especially important for camps for kids at higher risk of illness.

In Newbury Township, Ohio, Camp Ho Mita Koda is one of about 300 summer camps nationally that focus on people with special health concerns, including developmental disabilities or dietary and medical needs, according to Colette Marquardt, executive director of the American Camp Association’s Illinois office in Chicago. One of the few overnight special needs camps that remained in-person last year, it will welcome campers again this year even though it could be months more before kids younger than 12 can be vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Minimizing the risk of COVID infections is a priority at any of the country’s approximately 15,000 camps. But it’s especially important for camps hosting people who might be at higher risk of serious illness, Marquardt says.

Last summer, many medical camps developed “virtual camps” — often with care packages containing supplies for art projects and other activities — after organizers were unable to overcome logistical, equipment and staffing needs to operate in person safely.

Some medical camps will remain virtual this summer. Others are easing back into in-person activities with shortened overnight camps, day camps and family camps.

Camp Ho Mita Koda again will offer weeklong overnight camps this year with multiple layers of safety protocols in place. It once again will have fewer campers each session and will require physical distancing, COVID testing and quarantining by staff members — most, if not all, who will have been vaccinated. Campers, organized into small cabin groups who will stay together throughout the camp, will be required to wear masks when engaging with anyone outside their cohort. Masks won’t be required while sleeping, eating, swimming or showering.

“Families and kids want and need camp,” says Ian Roberts, Camp Ho Mita Koda’s director. “It is pretty evident with the number of registrations we see each week.”

Special needs camps commonly offer traditional activities like swimming, ziplining, horseback riding and archery. But they also fill a powerful role for campers and their families, Marquardt says. A camper might be the only kid in school who has diabetes or a food allergy or uses a wheelchair — which can feel isolating. At camp, though, that kid will be surrounded by people with the same or similar challenges and will get the chance to experience independence and take part in activities that might have seemed off-limits before.

“It’s a place where the people who go to camp get to do the things they see other kids doing that they didn’t think they could do,” Arbie Hemberger says.

Her 46-year-old daughter Cindy, who has mild cerebral palsy, has attended an Easterseals camp in Nebraska since she was 6.

Cindy Hemberger, who has mild cerebral palsy, has been attending Easterseals camps for 40 years. But Camp Easterseals Nebraska was virtual last summer. “It was fun to do it in virtual,” she says, “but I wanted to do it in person. It’s important. Because when we’re at camp, we can be normal.”
Cindy Hemberger, who has mild cerebral palsy, has been attending Easterseals camps for 40 years. But Camp Easterseals Nebraska was virtual last summer. “It was fun to do it in virtual,” she says, “but I wanted to do it in person. It’s important. Because when we’re at camp, we can be normal.”
Arbie Hemberger

Because special needs camps have medical staffers on-site, they often provide a respite for parents who lack other caregivers for their kids. Hemberger, who lives in Nebraska, says she didn’t have anyone she could easily leave with her daughter when Cindy was young. So camp became the one week each year she and her husband could relax and have time for themselves.

“You don’t have to worry about her because you know she’s with people who know what to do and are going to take good care of her,” Hemberger says.

While many of the traditional summer camps that offered in-person sessions last year operated safely by following guidelines from the American Camp Association as well as rules from local and state health departments, there were exceptions.

For example, at a Wisconsin overnight camp for high school students, 76% of students and staffers tested positive for COVID after one camper developed symptoms. The camp had required negative tests before arrival. Staffers were required to wear masks, but campers were not, and physical distancing wasn’t observed in sleeping cabins.

“While there were definitely stories of camps that had outbreaks, most did not,” Marquardt says.

With a year of experience, she says camps are in a better position to operate safely this year.

Still, for some special needs camps, the risk still seems too great this summer. The American Diabetes Association’s 23 overnight and 20 day camps will remain virtual this year, though organizers hope to return to in-person events next year. Program director Michelle Foster says it was too risky to operate so many camps across the country while navigating local coronavirus regulations and case rates and securing enough equipment and personnel. Diabetes can be a complicating factor for coronavirus.

Foster says she thinks her organization will continue to offer at least some virtual camp options well into the future because they reach more people who might not otherwise be able to attend.

This summer, Easterseals Nebraska will offer its virtual camp. But it also has developed in-person programs this year, including an overnight campout at the Omaha zoo, and “sampler camps” with two hours of activities such as fishing or crafts.

Cindy Hemberger and her mom began registering her as soon as they got word she could attend a three-day day camp in which campers will meet at a different location, like a zoo or state park, each day.

“It was fun to do it in virtual, but I wanted to do it in person,” she says. “It’s important. Because when we’re at camp, we can be normal.”

The camp has served people from 5 to 86, including those who require wheelchairs or have autism or mental health challenges. In the past, some younger campers didn’t have special needs but were the siblings of campers, or their parents wanted them to spend time with people who have different needs, according to Jami Biodrowski, the camp’s director.

Biodrowski says the isolation and lack of connection so many people have felt during the pandemic is what normal life feels like for many of her campers. For them, the pandemic only made those things worse.

“We knew we were important before, but, man, now we really know,” she says.

Olivia Klassen’s first trip to Camp Ho Mita Koda in Ohio came about six months after she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 2019. Ho Mita Koda –– designed for campers with diabetes –– was open last summer and will be open again this year. Masking, physical distancing and other mitigation efforts will be required for COVID protection.
Olivia Klassen’s first trip to Camp Ho Mita Koda in Ohio came about six months after she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 2019. Ho Mita Koda –– designed for campers with diabetes –– was open last summer and will be open again this year. Masking, physical distancing and other mitigation efforts will be required for COVID protection.
Sandra Klassen

In Ohio, Roberts was determined last summer to bring kids back to the now 92-year-old Ho Mita Koda, which he calls “a world-class camp that just happens to do diabetes very well.” Like other directors of special needs camps, he hears from parents and campers — past and present — that the sense of independence and the friendships made with others who experience life the same way helps inspire kids to confidently embrace a future with diabetes.

Olivia Klassen, who lives in suburban Cleveland, first attended camp in 2019, shortly after she was diagnosed. She and her family were a bit in shock. And she was embarrassed to answer questions about the bag of medical supplies she had to keep with her at all times.

Her parents say that, when they picked her up on the last day of camp, she was joyful and determined. She organized a diabetes awareness day at her school a few months later and now runs Instagram and YouTube accounts dedicated to talking about life with diabetes.

“I do not think Olivia would be where she is today with her diagnosis had it not been for camp,” says Sandi Klassen, her mom. “That was just a huge catalyst in showing her that, first off, you are not alone and that, second, you are capable of doing more than you think you are. It’s life-changing.”

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues.