At Bethelwoods Camp and Conference Center, on the shore of a small fishing pond, a child-sized electric wheelchair sat empty on Wednesday morning. The usual occupant, a young boy, was off in a canoe, paddling through the water like an old pro.
Landon Scronce, 13, was experiencing something he rarely gets to in his everyday life: freedom.
Landon is one of 49 campers between the ages of 6 and 16 spending the week at Bethelwoods at a very special Muscular Dystrophy Association event. Like Landon, every one of the campers at this camp has a disease that falls under the umbrella of muscular dystrophy, a group of genetic diseases that cause damage and deterioration of muscle tissue in the body.
At camp, there are no restrictions on what a child can do, said Amy Meyers, executive director with the MDA’s Southern Piedmont office, based in Charlotte.
“They get to come and be like everybody else,” she said. “Here, they’re not different.”
Most children with muscular diseases lose the ability to walk on their own or do other activities that are easy for others, she said. Many are in a wheelchair. Treatment for muscular diseases also can cause side effects such as weight gain, making it difficult for the children to be physically active.
But at the MDA camp, every camper has a personal counselor, selected specifically for them to serve their needs. Together with their counselor, campers go canoeing and fishing. They do archery and arts and crafts and have game days and karaoke nights and talent shows.
The most popular activity for most campers, by far, is the swimming pool.
“They would stay there all day if we let them,” Meyers said.
In the pool, she said, many of the children say they feel like they can walk again. The weightless feeling lets them move freely in a way their own bodies and their wheelchairs can’t.
Camper Jacob Bryant, 17, said his favorite activity is fishing. On Wednesday morning, he and his counselor pulled in a fish that was 6 or 7 inches long.
“It was little but it still felt pretty strong to me,” Bryant said.
After five years of coming to camp, this year is Bryant’s last. He’s aging out of the program.
“I like (camp),” he said. “But I don’t like that this is my last year.”
In the Bethelwoods lodge, Emily Jones, 11, was painting a picture. When her counselor, Deb Szeman, 21, from Fort Mill, asked Emily what her favorite part of camp was she looked up and said, “You.”
The counselors are all volunteers. Many are college students studying different types of therapy and many more work in health care. Some have been coming back every summer for years.
“It’s the best week for (the children) and it’s the best week for us,” said Farah Housh, who’s in her fifth year at camp.
She worked as a nurse for three summers before becoming a counselor.
“After I started coming, there was always something missing and once I came, I realized that was it,” she said.
The other thing that makes camp so special, Meyers said, is that not only are kids just getting to be kids, they’re getting to do it without their parents. Because of their limited mobility, most children are highly dependent on their parents. A week at camp is a week off for both the child and their parents.
The MDA camp is only possible because of sponsors such as Lowe’s Home Improvement and Bojangles’, Meyers said.
On Tuesday, Lowe’s donated materials for the campers to build and play a life-size version of “Hungry Hungry Hippos.” On Wednesday, Bojangles’ and other sponsors ran a carnival of sorts for the children that fit in with this summer’s board games theme. Earlier in the week, Rock Hill firefighters played softball with the kids.
And while all the logistics of sponsors, scheduling, activities and volunteers is important to the success and viability of the program at Bethelwoods and more than 120 other MDA camps across the country, for campers, it was just a week of fun.
“You get to enjoy yourself all the time,” Bryant said, as his counselor got a hook ready for him to cast back out into the pond.