Whether it’s chasing frogs, scaling the climbing wall, or arts and crafts, everything about the Albert and Ann Deshur JCC Rainbow Day Camp seems typical — until you learn about the campers.
Summer camp is considered a rite of passage for many children, but we often forget that it can be inaccessible to kids who are sick or living with a disability.
Designed for children with medical conditions that require special attention, like cancer or sickle-cell disease, the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, camp keeps nurses and doctors on staff so the kids truly have the best chance at "getting to be a kid for a day" for two days each year.
Counselor David, camper Alex. Photo by Josh T. Decker.
Siblings, who can sometimes be overlooked when their brother or sister needs more attention or care, are also invited.
They get the chance to totally let loose, an opportunity they don't always have when medical bills are high and private camp isn't always an option.
Only child? No problem — they can bring along a BFF.
"We’re used to dealing with a spectrum of needs for each kid," says Rainbow Day Camp director Lenny Kass.
Taking each kid’s unique challenges into account, the camp is committed to creating an experience that allows any kid in attendance to participate, no matter their limitations.
Scooter campers: Melvin, Adam and Memphis. Photo by Josh T. Decker.
But can a single camp experience really impact the kids, or is it just fun and games?
While an illness like cancer can really crush a child’s spirit, making connections at camp and embracing new experiences helps many of the kids walk away feeling lighter.
"There was a child in the clinic [who didn’t] speak much," Kass remembered. "He would hardly talk at all. Here at camp ... [we] literally could not keep him quiet."
Pool campers: Melvin and friend. Photo by Josh T. Decker.
There are many stories just like that, of kids who left Rainbow Day Camp with an outlook very different from where they began. And that's the magic of a camp like this — these kids are more than their illnesses, and creating a space for them to be themselves can do wonders.
Dr. David Margolis, a regular fixture at the camp, noted that it’s not just the kids who experience these transformations either. "This is soul food for the staff," he said.
"Some have gone on to become medical students and residents here."
Camper Athena (this was her last day of treatment!) and Dr. Stephanie. Photo by Josh T. Decker.
Parents, too, find joy in seeing their kids come out of their shells, living as children instead of as "patients."
As passionate as he is about supporting kids with diseases, Kass and his team are still invested in a future where a place like Rainbow Day Camp won’t be needed.
"We’d never have to have a camp because there’d be no kids with cancer," he said. "I hope it will be in my lifetime."
For now, he's content with "making even one child’s day phenomenal."
Making a difference in someone’s life can be as simple as that.