Campfire sing-alongs, gooey s’mores and cabin games are summer camp traditions that create lasting childhood memories. For kids with tracheostomies and other respiratory needs, these magical moments of summer are all made possible at Fresh Air Camp.
The camp serves children, ages 6-18, with tracheostomies, ventilator-dependency and other respiratory technology needs. It’s a collaboration between Akron Children’s Hospital, Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital, Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital for Rehabilitation, MetroHealth Medical Center and University Hospital Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital.
“We all help and work together to make this camp possible,” said Suzanne Felter, RN, nurse program coordinator at Akron Children’s. “All of these volunteers from the different hospitals come together to give this camp experience to the kids.
“Most of these kids can never go to a slumber party or spend the night at a friend’s house. Often, they’ve only been out of the house to come to the hospital.”
The annual summer camp began in 2001. Through the COVID-19 pandemic, the participating hospitals held a virtual camp in 2020 and 2021, but this year the campers will return for an in-person, week-long day camp June 6-10 at Camp Cheerful in Strongsville, Ohio.
During their stay, the kids experience a variety of classic camp activities, all safely adapted to their medical needs, including campfires, horseback riding, swimming, nature lessons, cooking classes and a talent show.
“One of their favorite things to do is have a water blaster fight,” said Suzanne. “We wrap the ventilators in plastic. A lot of the kids are quadriplegic, so we’ve adapted the water blasters. They can press on them and squirt their buddies. They just love that.”
Funded entirely through donations, the camp is provided at no cost to the children and their families. About 100 medical and non-medical volunteers from the participating hospitals manage the camp, including physicians, pulmonologists, respiratory therapists, staff nurses and students.
“It’s a labor of love for all of us,” said Kathleen Whitford, a pediatric nurse practitioner at Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital for Rehabilitation and Fresh Air Camp co-director. “It’s wonderful the way the community rises to support it.”
In her 22 years with the camp, Kathleen says she’s watched kids grow and form lasting bonds through the program.
“The friendships have been the most gratifying to see,” said Kathleen. “The children meet kids that they wouldn’t have met otherwise. They develop friendships, and now in the days of social media and cell phones, they can keep in contact. It’s wonderful to watch.”
Having worked at Akron Children’s for 44 years, Suzanne says this camp remains one of the best parts of her job. She encourages Akron Children’s staff to volunteer, so they can experience the joy and fulfillment for themselves.
“It changes your life forever, just going there and seeing these kids,” she said. “It’s a wonderful experience to see the joy that these kids have just being there and just being kids — living their lives to the fullest.”
For more information on camp enrollment and volunteer opportunities, email firstname.lastname@example.org.