San Diego Every Father's Day, over 100 San Diego youths, aged 8 to 13, get on a bus to spend a week at Camp Marston in Julian. While going to summer camp is not unusual, for many of these kids, it would be impossible without special intervention. Every camper has a medication schedule and list of foods to avoid, as all have moderate to severe asthma and many suffer from other allergies.
Sponsored by the American Lung Association, asthma, or "SCAMP" camp (Southern California Asthma Medical Program), has been held every June for the past 24 years. Originally held at Running Springs in the San Bernardino Mountains, the camp was moved to Julian in 1993. The camp is staffed by the lung association, the YMCA, and volunteers. Especially critical is the medical staff, which includes physicians, nurses, and other trained personnel, including the pediatric asthma coordinator, who plans the entire program. This year's coordinator, Rochelle de Ocampo, had little time to prepare.
"I just started this position in May. I came in when they were already planning it. This was my first camp, and I'm already planning next year's. It was really crazy, but it was fun, because I was learning everything that I had to do, but at the same time I was watching all the kids. A lot of them don't get the luxury of attending a regular 'normal' camp because of their asthma. Watching them have fun and just be like regular kids without having to worry about their asthma was the greatest part of it."
The health problems of kids who attend asthma camp are not limited to asthma. "A lot of times, children with asthma have many different kinds of allergies. Many of them suffer from the same kinds of allergies, such as allergies to nuts, certain berries, other food allergies, dogs, cats, things like that. Many of them have problems unrelated to asthma, like lactose intolerance."
Ocampo believes that the ability to forget their health problems and just have fun for a week is liberating for kids strapped with health problems. "Some of the evaluations that we've gotten back say things like, 'Thank you for making this special for us.' Many times they feel like outsiders because they have to take medication, but at asthma camp, everybody has to take medication, so no one feels 'left out.' They feel like they're not the only ones who have it, because everyone else is taking medicine. They're very sensitive to each other's needs because they all know what it's like."
The chance to feel "normal" for a week includes many activities. "They vary from canoeing to boating to archery to kayaking to wall-climbing -- which is the big event there. They play soccer and football and take hikes. They work in arts and crafts and take acting and dance classes. The day starts around 7:00. There are about ten kids assigned to each cabin with two counselors from the YMCA in each cabin. They get up at 7:00, and around 7:30 they go out to the field and raise the flag. At 8:00 they have breakfast. After that, their medications are dispensed by the medical staff. About 8:30 or 9:00, the organized activities begin -- these are activities they signed up for in advance. They'll do that for a couple of hours. About noon they come in for lunch, and then medications are dispensed again. One o'clock is siesta time, just a down-time for them to relax, write home, stay in the cabin, or whatever they want to do. At 2:00 they have more activities until 5:30, which is dinnertime. Meds are handed out again, then there are more activities until about 9:00. By 9:30, they're usually in their cabins, ready for bed."
One nonoptional event that every camper experiences is asthma education. "It's an hour each day for every kid. We have activities that teach them about asthma -- how to manage it, what the warning signs are. We have them draw things, such as 'How you feel when you have an asthma attack.' This year we had them sculpt Play-Doh models of what they thought their lungs looked like when they were having an asthma attack. They really enjoyed that."
Some parents may not like the idea of a child they think of as fragile being turned loose to engage in vigorous physical activities. Ocampo tries to respect parents' wishes while stressing that the camp is for the kids. "Parents will request certain things, but we're not there to parent the children. We're there to help them manage their asthma and help them to be as normal as possible. If they choose to climb the wall, that's their choice, and we will support that. If a parent requests that they don't, then that's up to them. They need to talk to their child about it. It's in the applications that we send out. They're aware that they need to talk to their child and communicate their worries with their child, because we can't parent 131 kids. It's impossible. We're there to help them with their asthma, to help them manage it, and to help them learn about it."
With the greatest concentration of asthma sufferers living in poorer urban areas of San Diego, asthma camp offers those kids a radical change of scenery that is affordable, regardless of income. "The cost varies, because it's based on a sliding scale. We try to get kids who've never had a camping experience before. We work with families that can't afford it. Some families pay as little as $25, while some will pay the full price of $250."
Although the lung association sponsors the camp, the YMCA provides the camp and the counselors. Other funding comes from donations and pharmaceutical companies. "We'll have their representatives come up, tour the area, and see what the camp is all about. Anyone who makes a donation is welcome to come up, and we give them a tour. They can stay for lunch or dinner or whatever they like. People want to come up and see how their money is being used. They usually like to spend time with the kids."