Impossible to describe: the magic of Over The Wall camp


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I believe the quote above came from a camper at Over The Wall camp. It’s well-known to volunteers, frequently used in our training sessions, as well as when people ask “well what is this place you’re always on about anyway?”. The quote is brilliantly accurate. Camp is an impossibly magical place, and certainly a place where I’m at my happiest and most confident. For the campers then, all affected by serious childhood illness, a week each year at Over The Wall is truly, and wholesomely life-changing. Magic is exactly what camp is (as one camper put it: “give me camp over Disneyland any day!”) but it’s only recently we’ve started to properly understand how camp affects individuals. It’s taken me six years to be able to articulately and eloquently explain quite what camp is, and what it can do, so it’s here in this blog post that I’ll try to relay a presentation in which I finally managed to show people outside of camp a little of the magic found inside. Almost every photo is from OTW camp, taken by the camp recorders (Steve, Harry, Mandy, Mike, Sarah and myself), with overlaying quotes from campers, parents and volunteers.

As the back of James’s t-shirt says: camp changes the lives of sick kids. Over The Wall – based throughout the UK with camps in Dorset, the Midlands and Perthshire in Scotland – is one of 30 similar camps worldwide; together they form the SeriousFun Children’s Network. This global network has grown from a single camp in Connecticut, called The Hole In The Wall Gang Camp. Founded in 1988 by the great actor, racing driver, and philanthropist Paul Newman, the camp shared it’s name with Butch Cassidy’s wild west gang (Newman’s favourite film role).

Newman, at the time a Hollywood superstar and professional racing driver, had enjoyed the American tradition of Summer camp throughout childhood, but was acutely aware that a population of America’s children were excluded from attending camp due to their medical conditions and physical disabilities. In an effort to change the luck of these children, and balance the benevolence of luck in his own life, Newman put a gargantuan effort into creating a camp where children requiring medical care could go and, in his own words, “kick back and raise a little hell!”. At blistering speed, a camp was created in Connecticut (you can watch the fascinating and inspiring story of camp’s creation here) with the first campers arriving in the Fall of 1989. Initially intended to kids could just have some good old regular fun, Newman and co soon realised that camp had a far more profound effect on these children than anyone had anticipated. On returning from camp, parents, friends and even doctors and nurses were astounded at the change in the campers, with even their physical health improving significantly. They were on to something special and with the help of social research and qualitative outcome studies, we’re beginning to understand exactly what camp is doing to our campers. Up until his death in 2008, Paul frequently visited the camps around the world, often taking breaks from filming his latest picture to spend time climbing, shooting and (his favourite) fishing with the kids. Today his daughter Clea Newman is continuing to promote and develop the charity, also visiting camps around the world. To this day, her father’s tradition of kissing a fish before throwing it back into the river is upheld.

Let’s take a minute to turn to The Dark Side of this post. Childhood illness is a cruel thief that steals vital moments from the children it affects, precious chunks of social growth and exploration of others and of self. Development occurs during every stage of childhood and adolescence, meaning children who spend significant amounts of time in hospital, away from school and peers, miss out on crucial developmental milestones. Peer interaction helps build resilience (used here to mean the ability to face and cope with everyday challenges). Social support has been identified as one of the strongest predictors of resilience. A lack of social support has been linked to compromised health, disease progression and reduced length of life.

We know that children who have strong networks of support are better able to cope with illness. Finding ways to help children living with serious illness develop relationship skills may help them not only develop friendships and build networks of social support, but also to better cope with illness and illness-related challenges. Camp has found ways to address these issues, and through an ever-developing programme of Therapeutic Recreation, the assorted chunks of childhood brutal stolen by illness are pieced back together with incredible, and lasting effects.

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You won’t find any tents, instead the kids and volunteers, in teams of 5-10 campers with at least a 1:1 ratio of volunteers:campers, spend the week in ‘cabins’ – accommodation blocks lovingly decorated by the volunteers in the team’s theme for the week. Spaceships, superheroes, Tigers, Ninjas and (of course) Frozen. With an age range of 8-17 years, campers spend the week climbing, painting, shooting, swimming, disco dancing, cake-making and anything else you could think of doing. An team of experienced paediatric doctors and nurses volunteer their time to camp too, enabling treatments and procedures to be done at camp, in our special (and de-medicalised) ‘Med Shed’. Able to adapt and respond to many situations and challenges, the med team at camp help to enable children to take part in activities they would never normally be able to do outside of camp.

Over The Wall, and the rest of the SeriousFun Network Camps, also provide identical camps for the siblings of sick kids. It can be easy to forget that often siblings are significantly affected by serious childhood illness in the family, with a range of unique emotions and similar time spent away from crucial learning and development moments. OTW gives siblings time out; a place to be themselves with the same level of attention and celebration from volunteers as their sick brothers and sisters would receive. Whilst children in hospital often make friends with those around them on the wards or in the clinics, siblings can feel even more isolated. Unlikely to know any other kids with sick siblings at school, and spending relatively little time in the hospital, the opportunities for siblings to spend time with other children sharing the same emotions are few and far between. At Sibs camp, there’s breakthrough moment seen when siblings realise that everyone else around them is in a similar position. They realise that the other kids “get them”, and once that’s happened we see enormous changes and they really start to shine. For families with children unable to attend camp for various reasons, or for families unsure if camp (or time alone away from the family!) is right for them, OTW runs Family Weekend Camps throughout the year. As well as experiencing a glimpse of the full camp magic, families are able to relax and learn how to have fun as a family again, with the energy and enthusiasm of some of camp most experienced volunteers. With doctors and nurses at the family camps too, parents and children learn to fit treatment and procedures around activities and fun, not the other way around. It’s a crucially important difference to realise.

In truth, if a camper wants to do something, and we can accommodate it safely and inclusively, it usually happens. It could be having a ‘bin-bag fashion show’ or simply chasing and tying up the other teams’ volunteers. There is no end the the fun and laughter of camp. Time to spend exploring activities and hobbies that life would’ve normally afford the time for, or having access to equipment not found in everyday life, fun comes in many forms at camp. Want to chase a volunteer in the swimming pool whilst dressed as a shark? Swim away! Got a bowl of cake and custard you want to ‘feed’ to a volunteer but actually smear all over their face and hair? No problem! Want to make the volunteers dress up in ridiculous costumes? Too late, they’ve already done it themselves! As long as it’s safe, there’s no limit to what campers can get up to at camp.

What we’ve seen over the years however, is that this fun and laughter enables our children to learn; about themselves and about others. In one hectic, non-stop week, our kids have the opportunity to learn some of those key life skills that illness stole from them. Creating an environment of acceptance and love, promoting silliness, absurdity and individuality, campers soon realise they don’t have to be anything else other than themselves. From here, they can nurture their true potential. The Therapeutic Recreation programme maximises these opportunities.

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Therapeutic recreation is experiential learning through fun. Before every camp, volunteer team mates will be trained by the staff team and their team leaders in how best to deliver the programme, which consists of four stages; all centred around fun. The stages can be seen in the images above: Challenge By Choice, Success, Reflection and Discovery. Often without the campers realising, these elements underpin most of what we do at camp. The idea is to get the campers to realise new things about themselves, or rediscover old things lost to illness. Through intense training and the creation of a ‘camp bubble’ with little influence from the outside world, the TR programme can help kids flourish in an environment where anything goes.

Challenge By Choice

There are a whole range of activities for campers to enjoy at camp, ranging from arts & crafts and cake decorating to wall climbing, swimming and laser clay pigeon shooting. Campers are encouraged to try everything, and we adapt and facilitate whatever needs they may have due to their conditions. Camp goes the extra mile by individualising every activity for each camper. If one camper can get to the top of the climbing wall in a flash, the challenge will be to do it one-handed whilst singing a camp song. If their team mate is terrified and didn’t even want to go to the climbing wall, their challenge may be simply putting the harness on and cheering on their new friends from the bottom of the tower. To both children, the challenges are of equal merit, and are recognised and celebrated as such. What I particularly love about camp is that the campers are completely accepting of this; whooping and cheering encouragement for every camper’s challenges. In 20  camps I’ve yet to see any hint of one camper thinking they’re better than any other.

Whilst the big activities provide the best challenges, there are all sorts of mini-magic-moments at camp that volunteers craft into challenges. Eating dinner with socks on your hands, trying a fried-egg-on-Nutella-sandwhich, leaving ‘Friendship Ninja’ notes in other team cabins without them noticing. The key to any challenge at camp, big or small, team or individual, is that each challenge is a camper’s choice. They choose whether they want to do a challenge, and the challenges are often guided by the campers’ wishes and needs. The more challenges created, the more achievements each camper makes. This leads to the next stage of TR.

Success

Every camper should be able to achieve their chosen challenges, no matter how big or small, whilst at camp. We want campers to step out from their comfort zones, into their stretch zones. This is where the magic happens. Achievements in the campers stretch zone are everything we’re about at Over The Wall. Every child will have different boundaries to there zones, and whilst we never ever want a camper pushed into panic zone (which undoes all the good work), volunteers are trained to recognise that each camper will have a different stretch zone. Some campers will zip to the top of a climbing wall with ease, whilst others may worry about simply stepping into the harness. To succeed in their stretch zones, the first camper may be challenged to get to the top of the tower blindfolded, or whilst singing camp songs and trying to dance their way up the wall; whilst just putting on a harness and cheering their fellow team mates on from the foot of the tower will be enough for another camper to be far into their stretch zone. Each achievement will be celebrated equally; the volunteers being trained to spot success in everything, and to positively label it, driving home solid achievement. A high five or a “good job” isn’t enough to validate achievement. Specifically pointing out achievements to campers helps move on to the next cycle of Therapeutic Recreation, the one where SeriousFun Camps really stand out from other kinds of activity camps: Reflection.

Reflection

Reflection is a process where campers become conscious of their successes, thoughts and feelings. Volunteers are well-trained to naturally facilitate reflection in the language we use at camp, and the way we approach conversation. Building from the idea that a high-five is not enough, getting campers to vocalise their thoughts and feelings about achievements, and what led them to those achievements, helps to validate success. It becomes a key part in building self-confidence which then leads to many other positive developments. Informal reflection happens throughout the day, brick-by-brick building up campers’ self-confidence. Transition times and meal times will be full of volunteers prompting: “hey Alex, why don’t you tell Sally what a superstar you were at swimming?”. In the evenings, a structured reflective session takes place before bed in the form of a ‘cabin chat’, where teams gather round with hot chocolate and marshmallows in their cabins and talk about the day. Questions to the team, such as “If you had a swimming pool, what would you fill it with?” and “If you could open a door to anywhere in the world, where would it lead?”, get the team into a reflective frame of mind allowing everyone to explore their highs and lows of the day and what their wishes for the next day will be. It’s a process involving kids and adult team mates, and can often be highly emotional as campers will start to explore deep feelings of success and pride. The final night cabin chat incorporates reflection on the whole week, with special tasks and exercises to fully explore the camp experience with the children. Sending wishes up in flying lanterns, catapulting fears written on hard-boiled eggs across fields, sending hopes and dreams down the river on paper boats. Reflection can be explored beautifully and magically. Every team will make a web-of-friendship, where campers and volunteers will pass a ball of string across a circle to somebody who has helped them that week, further helping vocalisation of new friendships and achievements. The piece of string held by each camper is cut and strung with a collection of coloured ‘brilliance beads’ awarded over the week for personal triumphs. Campers and volunteers have worn the bracelets made from brilliance beads for years and years after camp. I think this is the hardest part of camp to properly describe without actually experiencing the phenomenal levels of emotion at final cabin chat. The changes we see in the campers as the week goes on is unbelievable. The final stage of Therapeutic Recreation is what leads to these changes.

Discovery

Discovery is the only stage of the therapeutic recreation cycle which may not happen at camp. It is the combination of the challenge, success and reflection which allows the final stage to occur. We like to think that each part of the TR model builds a tiny piece of invisible armour that stays on the camper after they leave us. In difficult or challenging situations ahead, they use this armour and subconsciously remember the things we have taught them which triggers a positive way in which they deal with the situation. Discovery moments can be simple realisations that have big impacts on lives, such as switching mindset from fitting life around treatments to fitting treatments around life, or they can deeply profound self-discoveries as evident in the quotes above from campers and parents. The discoveries happen across the age groups, happen at siblings camp, and even as whole families at our family weekends. This is the real gift camp can give, and it’s not something that I think is quantifiable. Camp is a place of deep love, acceptance and true friendship; and because of these, it’s a place of healing. It’s been said that hospitals can fix the hole in the child, but camp can mend the whole child.

The Yale Study

The Yale Child Study Centre in the US runs an on-going outcome measures study of camps across the SeriousFun Children’s Network. Results from the most recent report can be seen in the gallery below. They show long-term changes measured at one month then six months post-camp, compared to pre-camp, based on questionnaire. The numbers speak for themselves.

I think Paul Newman sums things up pretty perfectly, so I’ll finish with my favourite of his quotes about his wonderful camps. If you know somebody who might benefit from camp, would like to volunteer yourself, or are a doctor or nurse wanting to know more, visit the Over The Wall website (UK), or see more at SeriousFun Children’s Network for international camps.

Below are a few videos I’ve made at camp over the past couple of years showing the energy and fun of a week at camp. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this, and consider donating or volunteering at Over The Wall. The camps rely on donations to provide everything free of charge to children affect by serious childhood illness.

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