Nurturing Health and Hope in Camp

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John* was frustrated, but even more so he was hurt. Just a teenager, John was confused about the changes he witnessed in his grandmother who battled Alzheimer’s. They used to be close. But now, she didn’t even know who John was. To make matters worse, whenever she saw him, she called him “Sarah.” A girl’s name! How could grandma think I’m a girl, questioned John.

“We thank Wheat Ridge Ministries’ input into the camp,” says Chris. “Without the support it doesn’t happen.”

Later that year, John was invited to “Time for Us” camp, a unique week of camp for the children of people with neurological diseases and particularly memory loss, held at Lutherdale Camp in Elkhorn, Wisconsin. There, John first voiced his feelings about his grandma calling him by a girl’s name. Chris Baum Van Ryzin, president of a nonprofit memory loss organization called forMemory, and organizer of the “Time for Us” camp, probed as to why John’s grandma would choose the name “Sarah.” “That was the only name she could remember that was dear to her,” explains Chris. “When we explained that to (John), it didn’t hurt so much. We told him, ‘You can actually be proud that she thinks of you in that same way.’ He smiled after that.”

Chris says that all of last summer’s “Time for Us” campers dealt with similar feelings of loss, confusion and fear. Many of these youth end up as primary caretakers for a parent or grandparent experiencing memory loss. Instead of sports and music lessons enjoyed by their peers, they spend their free time helping dress, feed and supervise their memory-challenged family member. They watch their loved one suffer and wonder if they’re destined to the same fate someday.

“These kids come out (to the “Time for Us” camp) and it gives them a chance to take a week off from this environment, which is big,” says Charley Shirley, development director for Lutherdale Ministries, which operates the camp.

“When they come, it’s often the first time they’ve talked about (the changes and loss they’ve experienced) or are even aware of it” adds Chris. “It’s very important they have support and find others like themselves so they feel less alone.”

The “Time for Us” camp held in the summer of 2010 expanded the offerings of the first such camp held at Lutherdale in 2009, thanks to a seed grant from Wheat Ridge Ministries. This grant enabled the camp to recruit “Time for us” campers, offer scholarships and integrate more brain-health and stress-reduction learning opportunities into their camping experience.

Campers learned basic information about how the brain works and how to keep it healthy. The kids were taught how to choose nutritious foods without additives and preservatives to better protect their brains, says Chris. The Wheat Ridge grant extended this learning by enabling the camp to serve organic, natural foods during daily meals. The menu change had a ripple effect, educating all the week-long Lutherdale campers, even those not associated with the “Time for Us” camp, on brain-fueling foods.

Similarly, the Wheat Ridge grant allowed the “Time for Us” campers to plant an organic rain garden with native Wisconsin plants. Designing, digging and planting the garden relieves stress and empowers the campers, explains Charley. “We get burdened by some problem in our life, and we just think of our own situation and what we’re doing. (Planting the rain garden) taught the kids they can give back to camp, they’re not the victims, they can do stuff for others.”

“We thank Wheat Ridge Ministries’ input into the camp,” says Chris. “Without the support it doesn’t happen.”

But beyond the financial support, Charley adds that working with Wheat Ridge is an unparalleled experience. “I got an email from Wheat Ridge just yesterday, and they prayed for our camp during their staff meeting,” recalls Charley. “I’ve worked in philanthropy for years, but I’ve never encountered (an organization) like Wheat Ridge. They’re actually involved. They’re not just nameless people…It’s the sense of someone who’s walking along with you and helping you along.”

The “Time for Us” camp, with Wheat Ridge as a partner, made a lasting impact on campers, adds Chris. A full eight months after the 2010 camp, she continues to receive notes and gifts of thanks from campers and their parents. One mother, who experiences early-onset Alzheimer’s, attended the camp as a volunteer counselor with her 15-year old son.

“Both were growing in an awareness and hope, developing a new determination to take charge, finding that there are positive steps to be taken. Having a new volunteer ‘job’ after so much loss, gave dignity back to the parent. Being able to voice for the first time concerns about his mother and being understood, brought relief to the youth,” says Chris.

Thank you for partnering with Wheat Ridge Ministries, Lutherdale Camp and forMemory to infuse hope and health into the lives of young campers. You’ve given them the knowledge and sense of community they need in order to live well today and not fear tomorrow.

Written by Jennifer Halupnik

*Name has been changed to protect privacy.