This last week, I’ve been in Canby, Oregon, at Canby Grove Conference Center, where the NW Kidney Kids were holding their annual Kidney Camp. This camp is for pediatric stage four kidney disease patients and their families. What that means is that kids who have kidney disease bad enough that they are close to needing dialysis, have been on dialysis, have had a transplant, or have lost a transplant or any combination thereof and their families (parents AND siblings–their disease affects the entire family, not jut them) show up for this camp.
The camp offers support for the whole family. Parents get educational classes and pampering and support from other parents. Kids get support from their peers and learn a thing or two about self-care. Siblings get a chance to have some fun and commiserate, too. And all of them have fun in various activities throughout camp–the same kinds of activities other kids would enjoy at any “regular” camp.
The first two days of camp were for the teens only. Willow was the only “little” kid present, simply because she was my daughter. So she was invited to sit and listen and take in what the kidney teens had to say. I was very proud of her, because she was so good and attentive. At the end of the first day, Willow and I went back to our cabin. We had heard these teens’ stories and what they had to live with, and had new insight into what life was like for them. I asked my daughter what she thought.
“Oh, Mom,” she said. “I feel so awful for them. I hope I never get kidney disease.”
It was enlightening for both of us. I’d like to introduce you to some of these wonderful kids:
Kaitlyn (17), Kenzie (16), Matt (17*), and Steven (26). Kaitlyn and Kenzie both received new kidneys from their father. Kenzie was only two years old when she got her transplant. In fact, she had to wait until she was two in order for her body to be big enough to hold her father’s adult-sized kidney. Kaitlyn was kicked out of school for missing so much because of her health issues, but it turned out it was a blessing in disguise, as she finished up her schooling through a community college (if I recall correctly) and now has a number of college credits under her belt. Matt is still having some pretty severe health issues and had some difficulty from time to time during the camp. Steven was 14 years old and had Olympic aspirations, running a 100 meter dash in the 8th grade in 10.77 seconds. Not bad for a kid! Then he was blessed with kidney disease, was transplanted with a new kidney from his sister less than a year later. Through kidney disease, he discovered different aspirations. He attended the Kidney Teen Camp as a camp counselor. He’s a father of a two year old now, and has another baby on the way.
Jacob (16*), Carrie (31*), and Austin (14). Jacob and his family came all the way from Wisconsin to enjoy Kidney Camp. They stumbled across it on the internet, took a gamble and came out. Jacob loved camp. As he said, “There’s nothing I hate about Kidney Camp!” This, with a big smile on his face. I got the feeling that was a big thing, because Jacob seems very reserved in his demeanor most of the time. Jacob has had a kidney transplant (though I don’t recall the source of the kidney). Carrie is also has had a kidney transplant, a veteran of past camps who came as a kid herself. Now she’s back to help other kids as a camp counselor herself. Austin was a first time teen camper. He’s been eagerly awaiting his chance to attend teen camp, since he’s been to the family camps before and couldn’t wait to be old enough to go to teen camp. He was disappointed to learn, when he turned 13, he still couldn’t go, because teens have to be in high school to go.
Mark (24) helped out with the videography. He filmed during the rafting trip on Thursday that the teens got to go on. He got some great shots! He also acted as a junior counselor during family camp. I believe Mark is still on dialysis.
Nova (19) is a young lady who is on dialysis. She has had a kidney transplant before, but it failed. She is awaiting another kidney and plans to attend college.
All of these kids are a real inspiration to me. Their zest for life, not to mention the matter of fact way they discussed the issues of their health impressed me. For some, their kidney disease shattered their dreams, and yet they are picking up the pieces of those dreams and reforming new ones. Jacob told me he once had a goal to be a MMA fighter or play football, and can’t because of any blow to the kidney being strictly off limits. So he changed his goals. He is fascinated by sharks. So now he wants to be an ichthyologist. Kaitlyn is bound and determined to be a detective and return to her home state of Montana. Steven, the former Olympic hopeful says he loves puzzles and trying to figure things out, and so his career of choice will involve that (another possible detective?).
And these were just the teens I got the privilege to hang with on Wednesday and Thursday. Friday, a giant group of parents and kids showed up–approximately 25 or 26 families. And a bunch of counselors and volunteers that also had their own stories about how kidney disease touched their lives.
So many times this last week, I’ve been teary-eyed. I’m telling you, this week was so emotional and it was SO hard to keep my mouth shut during filming, because I wanted to shout along with the other participants, clap and hoot and holler encouragement to the families as they participated in the various challenges and activities. More than a few times, I failed miserably. And other times, mental exhaustion kicked in and my feet were sore from standing around all day, so I took a break and participated in a few of the activities myself. I learned how to make a wallet out of zebra striped duct tape, and the minute I finished mine (I was the last person at the table at the time), a big wave of kids showed up and I ended up having to show a bunch of other people how to do it, too. 🙂
Micah wasn’t able to join me at the camp until Friday because of his own dialysis, but even though he wasn’t there for the whole five days, he still got a lot out of it, too. He says that talking with these kids and their families make him feel like his own troubles aren’t any big thing at all. It gives him perspective. That even though things seem really really bad sometimes, there are always people who have it worse, and he is thankful that he is able to manage.
When we returned on Sunday night, all I wanted to do was veg. I had too much on my mind to think about; I was too overwhelmed. I felt like crying. I still do. I’m not sure why.
I ended up going to bed early and sleeping in the next day, for a total of almost 13 hours. Talk about exhaustion, y’all.
One thing is for sure, if I don’t get to walk across America next year, I’m definitely going to go back to the camp as a volunteer. This experience has changed me. Micah and Willow want to go back, too.
*The asterisk is for ages that I’m not completely sure of.