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Medical student volunteers, counselors spend summer supporting children with diverse medical needs at Camp Holiday Trails

Camp experience provided for 250 kids and teens with medical needs

<p>Camp Holiday Trails offered five sessions with a total of 250 kids and teens.</p>

Camp Holiday Trails offered five sessions with a total of 250 kids and teens.

This summer a diverse team of undergraduates, medical students, nursing students, doctors and nurses worked with the full time staff at Camp Holiday Trails to provide a summer camp environment to children and teens with medical conditions. CHT offered five sessions with a total of 250 kids and teens.

Located a short drive outside Charlottesville, CHT is the legacy of three pediatricians who, in 1964, envisioned their patients having a positive camp experience in light of their chronic illnesses and medical complexities. Today, CHT continues to build a community between its young campers, their families, counselors and medical school student volunteers.

The camp’s current buildings sit on 75 acres of land, which were given as a donation in 1973 — the same year CHT became designated as a nonprofit. Since then, CHT has served approximately 45 to 65 kids and teens in each session every summer. 

CHT Executive Director Tina LaRoche said while anyone between the ages of 7 and 17 living in the United States can apply to participate in camp, most of the campers come from the mid-Atlantic region — wherever a children’s hospital is located, such as in Richmond or Washington, D.C. 

Rebecca Engler, a local mother of a camper, said in an email to The Cavalier Daily that she first learned about the camp as a student at U.Va. Her friend had participated in the camp and enjoyed the experience, and Engler had volunteered at CHT through the service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega. Years later, when her daughter was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age two, her pediatrician mentioned CHT. Even though Engler’s daughter had to wait a few years until she was old enough to attend CHT, she has not missed a summer session since then.

“[My daughter] comes home singing camp songs and telling ‘scary’ stories from the campout night,” Engler said. “It is truly her favorite place in the world. She has even told me that CHT makes up for having to live with type 1 diabetes.”

A typical day experienced by Engler’s daughter at the CHT summer camp may not look very different from a traditional summer camp. Prior to breakfast, kids gather near the flagpole to raise the flag, and they participate in a number of outdoor activities like swimming, archery and zipline courses throughout the day. Kids can participate in a special program — such as a talent show or camp carnival — in the evening. 

However, a key group of volunteers working round-the-clock distinguishes CHT from traditional summer camps.

“What makes us different is our behind the scenes volunteer medical team,” LaRoche said. “They work to provide medical care to the campers, so at every mealtime they are distributing meds all throughout the dining hall.”

During camp activities, kids may check out to receive medical care at Med Korner, the camp’s clinic. In the summer, the camp works with a total of 60 to 70 medical volunteers and six to eight volunteers work at the clinic at any one time.  

According to Medical student Elena Lagon, CHT excels at making sure the campers’ medical care does not overshadow their camp experience. 

“Instead of fixing their symptoms or illness, our goal is to really get them back into camp activities and to let them bond with the other campers in the most natural environment possible,” Lagon said. 

In addition to the medical volunteers, 30 camp counselors work with the kids and teens. CHT also offers family camps and teen retreats, and a year-round staff comprised of seven people oversees rentals of its property to weddings or campfires. 

While CHT has stayed true to its original mission, the camp has expanded in various ways. This summer, campers had the opportunity to play with the new slingshot range — courtesy APO — and take part in a treasure-hunting adventure with metal detectors.

In addition to incorporating new activities to engage their campers each year, CHT has worked to provide socioemotional support to their campers. Because many of the campers have social and emotional challenges — in addition to their medical ones — CHT recruited mental health student counselors and professional counselors this year.

“We’ve really changed our language around working with our kids and we do talk about trauma-informed care because that is the truth for so many of our kids,” LaRoche said.

To make sure the memories at camp remain close to the campers’ hearts, CHT staff keeps in touch with their campers throughout the year and visits them in hospitals. 

CHT tries to build a community not only for campers and their families but also for medical volunteers on staff — including students from the Medical School who may volunteer at CHT in an elective rotation. In addition to managing medical issues throughout the course of camp, medical students will spend time engaging in non-medical activities — like kayaking or rock-climbing — with the kids.

Medical students interacting with medically complex kids may have the opportunity to see firsthand how an illness is experienced and managed. 

According to Engler, whose daughter mentioned how a medical student said he had learned more about type 1 diabetes from her than from medical school, it is difficult to really understand a medical condition until one has experienced it or has taken care of someone experiencing it.

“I think [CHT] is a super unique opportunity for medical professionals to learn about the diseases and to see how resilient kids can be and how much they know about their own diagnoses,” Lagon said. 

Medical student Daniel Foley said volunteering at CHT restored a sense of humanity to the practice of medicine.

“During medical school you spend so much time learning about the diseases and all the intricacies that it’s easy to focus on just that aspect,” Foley said. “So when you’re at Camp Holiday Trails, you get to spend time helping the kids get their medicines and everything, but more importantly, you get to spend time hanging out with them and doing regular summer camp activities.”

Similarly, working at CHT may influence the trajectory of younger students volunteers. Both high school students and undergraduates have the opportunity to volunteer in select summer sessions or in the horse volunteering program. Undergraduates may also work in the camp as camp counselors throughout all five sessions.

Third-year College student Mira Bagous said her experiences as a camp counselor at CHT this summer influenced her future goals.

“Working [at CHT] has definitely strengthened my desire to pursue the medical career because now I met a lot of children that have medical concerns, and I’ve seen how the treatments and stuff can affect them,” Bagous said.