Asthma Camp lets kids be kids
From the front porch of the dining hall at Camp Tyler, the lake is visible through the thick covering of pines and the squeals of happy children splashing in the water can be heard. That is a sound of summer. That is the sound of camp.
The campers on the grounds of Camp Tyler last week were much like the thousands that come through each year from places all over the map except that these kids are here to learn more than archery and how to make a leather key chain. They are learning more about themselves and how to control their asthma.
More than 2,000 kids have come to the Texas Asthma Camp over the past 30 years making this the oldest and one of the largest asthma camps in Texas.
Dr. Jim Stocks, the camp’s medical director, and camp director Rhonda Scoby have been here for the better part of those years, 26 years to be exact.
“A lot of camps have trouble handling kids with chronic illnesses and a lot of parents of children with chronic illnesses, as a result, are very reluctant to let their kid go off to camp,” Stocks said. “So many kids with these chronic illnesses don’t get to come to summer camp like others do.”
Things are different here. These kids get to be kids.
“The kids come here, they run and play, they fall down, they get dirty,” Stocks said. “What makes it special is that all of the counselors are medical professionals. They are respiratory therapists, we have full time nurses and a doctor here 24/7 and by and large most all of the volunteers are associated with the medical profession as well.”
Campers did what most kids do at camp. They had activities like swimming, riflery, archery, basketball, crafts and photography. They had a dance one night. They were treated to boat rides on Lake Tyler by their friends at the Lake Tyler Homeowners Association.
“Some of these kids have never been on a boat,” Scoby said. “It was wonderful to see their smiles and share in their joy.”
While the kids are busy having fun they are also taught a bit about how to better care for themselves and take control of their asthma.
“We structure the medication administration around meal time and just before they go off to bed,” Stocks said. “And the secret, that the older kids figure out after they’ve been here a couple of years, is that what we slide into this is some painless education about asthma. It’s not enough to make sure they just stay out of danger but the real thing with asthma camp is the opportunity to teach the kids to control their own asthma so they don’t have to go running off to an adult every time or if they do at least they know why they are going to the adult to obtain their medicine.
We teach kids about their asthma, we teach kids to recognize when they are in trouble, how to understand what it is that gets them in trouble and how to manage that, not just to avoid it by sitting in front of the TV. So the accomplishment is that what we know is that kids who have gone through an asthma camp for the year afterwards, there is a measurable difference in the reduced number of ER visits, reduced hospitalization, reduced days lost from school, the family expenses are cut from getting acute care on average.”
Texas Asthma Camp doesn’t happen all by itself. It is framed by a huge network of supporters and volunteers.
“This is based by UT Health Northeast,” Scoby said. “We have the health center that is responsible for the camp, Tyler Junior College is involved with their respiratory therapy program and their faculty is out here this week. The East Texas Communities Foundation – The Texas Chest Foundation Fund provides scholarships for campers, so we are not limited in being able to accept a child because of fi- nancial need consequently we are able to go after the sickest kids, with the help of school nurses, respiratory therapists who identify these kids. Probably this year our financial aid is close to 90 percent of our kids are here on fi- nancial aid which means these are kids who otherwise would not ever get an opportunity like this but because of the generosity of the organization that supports us we get to help so many kids.”
Dexter Jones takes off his hat as head of community relations with UT Health Northeast and gets to play the role of activities director for asthma camp.
“I get to be a big kid again,” Jones said. “It is a great experience for me as well as the kids.”
Jones is just one of the many volunteers who are employees from UT Health Northeast.
“Dr. Calhoun allows for administrative leave for employees of UT Health Northeast to come and volunteer for the activities,” Scoby said. “We are so blessed to have this kind of support.”
Girls and boys from ages seven to fourteen take part in the annual camp.
Alexis Shelton of Troup is a fourth year camper.
“I like shooting the guns and fishing the best,” Shelton said. “Swimming is fun too. The water felt good this morning.”
Shelton says she has learned more about taking her medicine on time and using her inhaler when she needs it.
“So I’m in control and not my asthma being in control,” Shelton said. “That’s a good feeling.”
She was most excited about the dance that would take place that evening.
“I’ve been ready for the dance since I got here!”
The effects are long lasting and can be life changing.
“Kids with chronic illness, they are at risk in becoming scarred and damaged by their chronic illness so that they don’t grow up,” Stocks said. “This is an opportunity to teach kids, and indirectly their families, that they can be like anybody else if they want to end up being the next Olympic champion. It’s not their asthma that’s going to stop them.”