Happy campers can’t wait for summer

Patient Stories |

02/15/2024

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Jack, Jonathin and Goshi are just two of the hundreds of kids with physical and cognitive differences who flourished at Camp Riley last year. Applications are now being accepted for this summer’s sessions.

By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior writer, mgilmer1@iuhealth.org

The thought of sending her little boy away to summer camp kind of terrified Katie Weitz.

The Carmel mother of two never thought her son could have that treasured childhood experience because he has osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bone disease) and has suffered more than 50 bone breaks in his 10 years of life.

“I had never even considered summer camp as a possibility for him. He had never spent the night with anybody other than my mom,” Weitz said. “I don’t trust people easily when it comes to caring for him.”

But then she talked to some other parents whose children play on the same wheelchair basketball team as her son, Jack.

Camp Riley, which has been hosting campers with special needs at Bradford Woods since 1955, is an experience like none other, they said. The staff is meticulous, safety is paramount, and the ratio of caregiver to camper is designed with medical needs in mind.

Tommy Gardner, program director at Bradford Woods, which is owned by Indiana University and staffed by a team of Riley nurses, physicians and pharmacists who live onsite during camp, says the one- and two-week camp sessions are not just fun opportunities for kids; the sessions are planned around recreation therapy.

“We have a team that creates individualized treatment plans for every camper with clinical goals and objectives to be completed at camp,” he said. “It’s a unique opportunity for campers to experience being with peers, but it’s also clinically beneficial.”

Shelby Arney, a nurse on 8 East at Riley, served as nursing director last summer at Camp Riley and can’t wait to do it again this year.

“One of my favorite parts about camp is the connections I get to make with the campers. I truly feel so lucky and honored to get to take care of them all summer,” she said.

“Some of these kids have been coming since they were 8 years old, and now they’re teenagers. They are a family,” Arney added. “And it’s so cool to see these kids doing well outside the hospital.”

Jack, who sees endocrinologist Dr. Linda DiMeglio and other providers at Riley Children’s Health, had a blast at camp last summer, swimming, playing basketball, practicing archery, even being hoisted up to the top of a climbing tower. He and best friend Jonathin Perez were practically inseparable.

“It was fun,” the fourth-grader said as he finished up a game of Fortnite at home this week. “I’ll go back if I can, but I’ve been breaking a lot.”

Breaking, as in bones, something he has had to adjust to over the years. The genetic disease diagnosed in utero in Katie and Sam Weitz’ oldest child causes bones to fracture easily, often with no obvious cause. Jack gets regular infusions at Riley to boost his bone density.

Katie Weitz acknowledges being anxious during the five days that Jack was away at camp.

“I was on edge the entire time, not only because he was not with me, but he was doing really physical activities that are typically very dangerous for him.”

But she knew the ratio of camper to counselor was 2 to 1, and the camp personnel had gone to great efforts to get to know her son and his unique challenges, so she was reassured that he would be OK.

It also helped that camp leaders posted photos mid-week for families, showing their campers having fun.

“The adaptations they had made for activities made me feel a lot better,” Weitz said.

Katrina Kelly didn’t have the same level of concern when she sent her son, Goshi, to Camp Riley last summer for the first time, but only because Kelly is a Camp Riley veteran herself.

“I was a camper there from when I was about 11 until about 17,” said the Indianapolis mom. “I have a lot of trust, having been there myself.”

Goshi, like his mom, has spinal muscular atrophy and uses a wheelchair. The 11-year-old also has hemophilia. He sees multiple providers at Riley, including Dr. Kerry Hege in hematology, Dr. Marcia Felker in neurology, Dr. Sandeep Puranik in pulmonology and Dr. Jerry Rushton, pediatrics.

When she looks at the pictures the camp shared of her son goofing off with other kids, Kelly knows he had a good time.

“My favorite part when I was a kid was the friendships I made,” she said. “I still talk to some of them today.”

Weitz and Kelly both think their boys came back a little braver after camp.

Goshi overcame his hesitancy about swimming and took the plunge with help from a counselor.

And Jack became a bit more independent over the five days, his mom said.

“A lot of things he relies on us for here at home he did independently at camp. I think he wanted to show everybody that he could do it on his own. That was neat to see.”

While medical camps can be expensive, Gardner said Camp Riley is designed to be accessible for families.

“On top of the generous medical support that IU Health provides, Riley Children’s Foundation subsidizes most of the cost for the family,” he said, a cost that otherwise might run into the thousands of dollars.

Still, he said, no camper will be turned away due to financial need.

The priority deadline for applications is March 31.

Apply here.