Brainy Camps teaches special needs kids how to be smart about managing illness

AHA News

Brainy Camps is a funny name. But this summer camp is serious about teaching kids with special needs to live wisely.

Brainy Camps does more than allow children to experience bunk beds and rope courses every summer. It has helped children with chronic illness learn how to control their disease by building confidence and management skills, says Sandra Cushner-Weinstein, who founded the first Brainy Camp for children with epilepsy in 1994.

Since then, it’s expanded to offer specialized camps for children diagnosed with sickle cell anemia, heart disorders, type 1 diabetes, cerebral palsy, Tourette syndrome and other health conditions. Sessions vary in length from a few days to one week, and run from mid-June to early August. There are family camps as well.

In 1997, Brainy Camps became a program within the neurology department of Children’s National Health System (CNHS) in Washington, D.C. It was established 12 years later as an independent non-profit organization and subsidiary of CNHS.

Brainy CampThe campers “learn how to better manage and cope with their health conditions from medical professionals and peers facing similar challenges in a safe and fun environment,” says Weinstein, who is director of services and camps at CNHS’s neurology department. “They don’t always feel that they are part of a community. But Brainy Camps is their community.”

As one young camper told her: “This camp gave those of us who are usually in the minority the chance to be in the majority.”

The camp is in High View, W. Va., some 90 miles from Washington. About 450 campers – ages 7 to 16 – will attend Brainy Camps this summer, assisted by more than 125 volunteer counselors. There also is a camp for transitioning youth – young people between 17 and 24 years of age who need help with independence and finding their direction.

Medical and nursing students are counsellors, clowning around in shorts instead of scrubs to gain youngsters’ trust. “They are with the kids all the time and it makes them more empathetic,” Weinstein says.

Counsellors with the same illness also act as mentors. About half of the campers return to the camps as counsellors. “It’s part of the empowerment that goes on at the camps,” says Weinstein. “Everyone can contribute to the community.”

Camp costs about $200 per day. Families pay $120 a day if they can, and the camps subsidize the rest. About 65% of campers receive need-based scholarships. Grants, private donations and fundraising events help sustain the programs.

Weinstein and others have studied the program’s impact on campers with epilepsy and heart disorders. Their findings suggest that children who attended the camp for three consecutive years showed improvement in social interaction and in handling responsibility.

“Our motto is have fun but be wise and live well, and that means become educated, develop your advocacy skills, learn to know the community and go for your goals,” Weinstein says. “If they live long enough, everyone will develop a chronic health condition. We tell our campers they just have it at a younger age, and the skills they learn here will take them far in life.”    

Visit www.brainycamps.com to learn more about the programs offered at Brainy Camps. 

Topic: Community Health
Tags: child health, Community health, Community Connections, chronic conditions

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