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Reflections on the first Camp Liberté in Western Canada

By Tess Peters, MSc MD

At the end of the camp we did a brief interview with each child. When asked “What was your favourite thing about camp?”, one boy replied “There were other kids that were like me, but just didn’t (have) the same condition as I did.” When he said this, I knew we had been successful in our inaugural year at Camp Liberté West. At a time in life when looking different becomes more and more difficult, they found “sameness”. This experience allowed these children to forget about their skin for a while and see each other as just children who wanted to explore, play and create.

We had five children enrolled for the first year of Camp Liberté West. It was a good thing in a way, a pilot test for this camp experience. The children were ages 10-15 and had conditions such as autosomal recessive congenital ichthyosis, atopic dermatitis and alopecia areata. We knew them well by the end of the five days at the Easter Seals Camp Horizon in Bragg Creek, Alberta. The entire day was spent with them, participating in activities like white water rafting, hiking, crafts, high ropes and the giant swing, while the dedicated camp counselors led the way.

Participating in these activities was transformative for some. Conquering a fear of heights, or even swimming was important in building confidence. When asked “What goal did you achieve during the camp?”, one adolescent replied “Definitely swimming more and wearing shorts”. The safe and encouraging environment at Camp Liberté West made these goals achievable and gave us insight into the personal challenges many of them face.

What I found most surprising was the self-efficacy and independence by which some of the youngest campers managed their conditions. They were also educated about their respective diagnoses. When asked “What is wrong with your skin?”, with the childhood innocence that allows this type of question, he replied “I can tell you, but you will not understand. Autosomal recessive congenital ichthyosis.” We were nearby to assist with applying creams, but often they had already done so before we could remind them. They shared in the ritual of topical treatment, which normalized the experience for all.

Camp Liberté West was made possible by the hard work of Dr. Kirk Barber and Sarah Oberholtzer. Many thanks for planning and managing the logistics of Camp Liberté West. Maddy Oberholtzer, Raphaël Claveau and Russell Wong were important members of the volunteer team. Through this experience we have all gained insight into these children’s lives, which has enhanced our understanding of these conditions and will enrich our patient relationships.