Canoe and oars

My Trip to Camp Hemotion

Becoming a camp counselor
Author: Gary Widlund

See the NHF Camp Directory.

Bobby Wiseman, co-director of Camp Hemotion, e-mailed me in May 2007, asking if I would like to be a counselor at the camp for kids ages seven to 15. The camp is for kids with hemophilia or other bleeding disorders and their siblings. I was interested, but also concerned about the time it would take away from my duties as executive assistant to Dr. Alan Kinniburgh, the National Hemophilia Foundation’s (NHF's) former CEO. My boss, however, was quite clear in his response: “Have fun,” he said.

When I found out the camp’s 30th anniversary theme was X-Men (Marvel Comics’ team of fictional superheroes), I immediately bought a Wolverine costume.

Counselors were required to go through two days of training before camp started. Exercises to help us bond, respect and trust each other were the first order of business; the second day was devoted to going through the 31-page staff manual to make sure we adhered to conduct guidelines and the code of ethics. We were also presented with a daily camp activity grid, arranged by age group, showing what we would be doing with our charges throughout the week. This was way more complicated than I had ever imagined.

 [Steps for Living: All About Camps]

After going through the training and being assigned to the youngest age group—seven-year-old boys—I thought perhaps this most excellent idea was a little less excellent than I had hoped.

Then there was the aspect of “taking off our hats.” We were required to give up our cell phones and other electronic equipment so that every minute of every day could be devoted to the camp and our charges. What was I going to do if I couldn’t contact the outside world for an entire week?

You see, I have a confession to make—I’d never been to camp. Not even as a kid. And now I was at camp, expected to be a counselor for a bunch of kids. But I was not alone. There was one other adult counselor and two junior counselors, about 16 years old, for each cabin. That should be enough of a kid/adult ratio to make it an easy week, I thought. Little did I know!

I was not prepared for the emotional and physical toll this week would have on me. I have been around the hemophilia ­community for almost nine years, but I learned more in one week than in the entire time I’ve been at NHF. The commitment of the volunteers who gave freely of their time was inspiring.

I visited the infirmary, a building on a hill at the back of the camp. As the week progressed, it loomed both literally and figuratively in the background. I was struck by the fact that, rather than a place to be used only in emergencies,  this infirmary was going to be an integral part of many campers’ daily routines. The medical staff was on top of each child’s personal needs and his or her schedule during the week. Again, the level of organization was staggering; the commitment of the medical staff was astounding.

The campers arrived Sunday afternoon and, oh, the energy! A few had ports to administer factor product; others were not affected by hemophilia at all. But each was a bundle of energy, just itching to get started with the camping experience.

The needs of the children were many and varied. I guess I didn’t know what to expect. How do you start teaching a child a little independence when he has, for the most part, depended on adults to provide everything—when he’s been, in a sense, cocooned since birth? At seven years old, they craved that independence. How do you prepare yourself to meet the needs of eight little boys with boundless energy during myriad activities packed into an intense week of go, go, go? I felt exhausted after the first day. No amount of training could have prepared me for what happened that week.

Some children met others with a similar condition for the first time in their lives. Others were mentored by older kids who had been to camp before. The level of caring and sharing was overwhelming.

Sunday evening, Val Bias, the camp co-director, gave a presentation on the theme for the week—X-Men. He explained that just like the X-Men, those with the mutant gene for hemophilia could consider their condition both a blessing and a curse. But he also explained that the campers could use it to their advantage. Preparing their bodies and minds for the week ahead was the main goal.

Monday morning, a female counselor was added to our cabin. The eight children in our charge had already run us so ragged that we needed help. She took over my bunk, so for the rest of the week I slept on the floor. It was worth it, however, because she was very helpful in setting up consequences for behavior that needed discipline.

Each morning began with Polar Bears—an elective swimming activity at 6:45 AM. The first day, all the kids in our cabin got up about an hour earlier than they had to so they could start with a splash. As the week progressed, though, only three boys stuck with it every morning.

After meals, each group was expected to clean its table. The “cup or onion” tradition was introduced. If, after eating, you cleaned your table to the director’s high standards, you got a cup decorated with silly filigrees as a reward for good habits. If you didn’t clean your table—well, you got the onion. Then, someone at the table had to take a bite of it. I got that honor once.

Each day there was a rest period called FOB—Flat on Back or Flat on Bunk. The boys were not excited about having to do this, but once they were down, they were out. I wish I could say the same. I never really took a nap during my week at camp.

One day, our arts-and-crafts activity was mask-making. Seven-year-old boys can be very creative, but also very messy. Keeping them from painting each other was a ­challenge. Highlights of the week included archery, a water fight with super-soaker water guns, a sleepout under the stars (I never knew the ground could be so hard), a campfire with s’mores and a drumming session. 

On the last night, each cabin put on a skit. Our skit was called Centa, and the boys stood in a line, draped with a sheet. All you could see was their feet. They did a few basic tricks and proceeded to walk over a couple of volunteers from the audience lying prone on the stage. In the middle of the walk, a large pitcher of water was poured over the volunteers. Oh, no, Centa peed! It got the biggest laugh of the evening.

There were some very rewarding moments at camp. One child who had inadvertently been placed in our cabin was removed because he was two years older than the other campers. However, he had begun the week placing great trust in me. For the next two days, he asked to speak to me about his homesickness. I explained it would be difficult to allow him to call his mother when others with the same feelings were not allowed to do so. I asked him if he could try to wait it out and not let his feelings overwhelm him. I also encouraged him to rely on his new counselors. By the end of the week, he was smiling and was one of the youngest boys to self-infuse for the first time. I would like to think I had something to do with the growing sense of independence this boy experienced.

Another boy had only one pair of shoes, which he wore to the water fight. Of course, they got sopping wet. After all the children dried their feet and put on clean, dry socks, we were given large plastic sandwich bags to place over their feet before they put on their shoes. This way, their feet would be protected and they wouldn’t get blisters from running around in wet shoes. However, this child was adamant about NOT wearing the plastic bags. I tried everything I could think of, and he was simply not going to do it. I finally got him to open up—he explained that he didn’t want the other children making fun of him. The solution? I cut the plastic bags so that they came just to the top of the shoes. We both were very happy with this, and I learned a bit of psychology in the process.

My experience at camp affected me profoundly—it was really a revelation. The time and effort put in by so many people organizing and staging this camp was extraordinary. And it makes me happy to think that there are many other such camps around the country providing similar experiences.

I was given the opportunity to go to Camp Hemotion as an NHF employee. The experience was so emotionally relevant that I would spend my vacation time next year doing it again. I truly believe the community needs to create more programming of this sort because this is truly where the action is. I will be working toward that goal.

And, oh—the Wolverine costume? I never wore it. I gave it to a junior counselor who wore it during the carnival night. He looked great.

Camp Hemotion is sponsored by the Hemophilia Foundation of Northern California, a chapter of NHF. It is located in Coarsegold, California, near Yosemite National Park.