With backpacks, sleeping bags and anxious parents in tow, more than 40 kids marched up the dirt path from the parking lot to the Welcome Center at IslandWood on Bainbridge Island.
Their arrival marked the kickoff of the Chapter’s first annual MS Kids’ Journey Camp, a weekend-long excursion for children with a parent or grandparent diagnosed with MS. For the group of 6- to 12-year-olds from Western and Central Washington, it was a chance to interact with one another and to learn more about the disease in a lively and enlightening environment.
Awaiting the campers at the Welcome Center were a dozen volunteer counselors, headed by Kristen Leighter, Community Development Manager. Volunteers included young people with MS and close friends and family members of those with the disease.
Two days and many memorable moments later, both counselors and parents would readily acknowledge that the flagship year of the MS Kids’ Journey Camp was a smashing success.
Campers had the chance to hike, take part in field games, learn about the wilderness and explore the outdoors at IslandWood, a 255-acre educational facility that has been lauded as one of the best outdoor learning centers in the nation.
Campers and counselors “roughed it” in the Birds Nest and Mammals Den Lodges, where built-in wooden bunk beds, private bathrooms and a window for everyone were among the many comforts. In the evenings, the group sat around a roaring campfire to perform skits, sing songs and gobble down S’mores.
Interspersed throughout the weekend were opportunities to learn more about MS. In one workshop, kids wrote with vibrating pens and walked with weights on their ankles to mimic common MS symptoms. They pored over CAT-scan images of a brain with plaque deposits and studied a model of the human eye to understand how MS can affect a person’s vision.
Campers also viewed “Timmy’s Journey,” a short animated film about a young boy who learns about his father’s MS and comes to understand how he and his dad can still have a special relationship.
A popular character throughout the weekend was “Larry the Lesion,” by Jaime Hagarty.
“When working on the committee for the camp, we discussed ideas for the kids to relate to MS and I thought this would be perfect,” said Jaime, who has MS and whose son, Nate, attended camp this year.
After contacting the original creators of Larry the Lesion and getting their okay, Jaime designed stationery, envelopes, coloring sheets and a fun box for the kids to put their questions in.
“Our hope is that that kids could look to Larry for advice and understanding of what they are going through. He has turned into a great mascot for kids who have a parent or grandparent with MS,” she added.
Campers were encouraged to write letters to Larry asking any questions they had about MS. During a wrap-up session on the last day of camp, many of those questions were answered by counselors Davy Dahlin and Molly Johnston.
Questions like these strike at the heart of what many children wonder as they grow up with a family member with MS. Sometimes, parents either don’t know how to answer or feel uncomfortable responding.
“I never asked my kids what they thought, because I didn’t want to put [the idea that they might get MS] in their heads,” said Judy Olson, whose son, Hunter, was a camper. “Before this camp, Hunter didn’t have any other friends who had a parent with MS.”
This was true of the majority of campers, and even the counselors admitted that they had never met another child with a parent who had MS until they were in their late teens or even older.
The commonality created by this weekend formed a special bond between campers, but ultimately, the kids were just kids like any others. They rehashed stories from the school year, talked about where they and their families are going on vacation, told jokes, and kept their counselors on their toes with their seemingly limitless amounts of energy.
The last minutes of camp were swift. The last lunch plate was cleared as the first parents came up to the Welcome Center to pick up their children. Tears were shed and hugs given as promises about returning next summer were made.
“Graham still talks about camp,” said Steve Dyette of his son several weeks later.
He described how, one day, Graham wore his Join the Movement pin, a gift to each camper on the last day. Steve asked his son why he was wearing it, and Graham replied:
“I’m wearing that because, if someone asks me, I’m going to tell them about MS, and that it hasn’t been cured yet but that they are working on it.”
INTERESTED IN SENDING your children to Kids’ Journey Camp next year? We’ll put your name on an interest list and contact you in the spring with dates and more details. Check it out online or call 1-800-344-4867 and press 1.
Story and photos by Anne Dobson