Fun is the prescription for sick kids at The Center for Courageous Kids, a world-class medical camp in Scottsville
Wyatt McCarty loves to swim. He is honing the pencil dive and even practices with big brother Alex’s swim team. But Wyatt, now 10, was beginning to feel self-conscious when he had to take off his shirt to get in the pool.
Only then could others see his “miracle scars,” reminders of three major surgeries to save his life. Only then could they guess that he has acute congenital heart disease.
Fortunately, just as his self-consciousness began to grow, Wyatt left his home in Ashland for summer camp.
At camp, no one asked about his scars. His fellow campers had miracle scars of their own. Wyatt was just like everyone else—one of the reasons this camp is so life-changing and so much fun for the campers.
The camp, served by Tri-County Electric Cooperative, is part of The Center for Courageous Kids, a sprawling, $20 million medical camping facility set on 168 acres in Scottsville specifically for kids with life-threatening medical conditions. A 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, The Center’s annual operating budget of $3 million comes solely from donations.
The Center’s founder Elizabeth Turner Campbell always wished her son Warren could have experienced summer camp. Warren fought cancer for 19 years before losing the battle, but there was nothing like The Center near Kentucky then and only a handful of similar places today.
The daughter of Cal Turner Sr., founder of Dollar General Store, Campbell had the financial means to ensure that other kids never lost out on the fun of camp because of a medical issue. And since February 2008, more than 8,000 children and family members from 30 states and Canada have experienced this staple of childhood—at no cost to their family.
Campbell passed away on February 25, 2011, at the young age of 68. “Ms. Betty was a testament to the idea that one woman can make a difference,” says Communications Director Stormi Murtie. “The Center for Courageous Kids is steadfast in its commitment to keep laughing, keep serving more kids, and to preserve her dream.
“She didn’t just create a camp,” says Murtie. “She created a world-class facility. It’s really a hospital disguised as a camp.”
Kids don’t notice the hospital part (although that’s the first thing parents do notice because they know their kids will be well taken care of here). Horses are the first thing you see as you round a bend to The Center, welcoming you from behind white fences corralling a cluster of blue-roofed buildings. Then you see a barn, and notice the 4-acre fully stocked fishing lake with an oversized deck.
If you look closely, you see the helipad. It’s the only visible clue that this serene place houses medical facilities that can accommodate seriously ill children or airlift a child to the hospital on a moment’s notice.
You won’t find many clues inside either. The main building contains exam rooms and medical facilities, but most campers see this part only once. Every child receives a medical check upon arrival during which prescriptions and medical needs are logged. For the remainder of their stay, medical needs are scrupulously met but not in a hospital-like manner.
“We may take a child off a horse if it is time for her chemotherapy,” says Murtie, “but then she is right back to having fun.”
Wyatt McCarty’s favorite place—the indoor swimming pool—is a good example of how medical needs befriend fun. The pool has a zero-grade entry so wheelchairs made of PVC pipes can be pushed in. The water is warm, and there are warm rooms just a few feet from the pool so children never get chilled. Lifeguards watch as counselors play with kids in any way the children can—from simply feeling the water on their skin to throwing balls to swimming.
Fun is the purpose, the goal, and the mantra here. Safety and medical attention are ever-present but they seldom take center stage. For most of these kids, the opposite is true normally.
“This is a happy place,” notes Murtie. “We have lots of belly laughs. It’s a magic time for the kids.”
It may be more magical because the children have life-threatening medical conditions, but any kid would love it. There are bowling alleys, a gym with a basketball court, a music room, woodworking shop, beauty and barber shops, archery, a fully stocked game room (billiards, air hockey, pingpong, etc.), cooking room, performance stage, dining hall, a flat climbing wall, and numerous “dens”—sleeping rooms with twin beds covered by handmade quilts. The only things you won’t find are televisions and computers: this is camp, after all.
The Center also offers Family Weekends, where an ill child attends camp with his or her entire family, paired with those kids and families facing similar challenges. The weekend is designed for the entire family, including a parents’ night out and nonstop activity for all children in the family.
Weekly summer camp programs host 128 kids each week with similar conditions for a five-day stay. Activities are customized to their particular needs, but even the sickest get to enjoy a true camp experience. If they can’t go outside to sing around a campfire, for example, counselors re-create the experience in the gym.
“Their abnormal world becomes the normal,” Murtie notes.“Sometimes for the first time ever, the kids can form friendships with others who truly understand. They can have fun and just be a kid.”
And isn’t that what summer camp is all about?
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: MEMORY MAKING MOMENTS
Learn more about what kids learn at The Center for Courageous Kids by reading this online exclusive Memory Making Moments.