I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at age 20, although I should have been diagnosed many years earlier. My disease progressed quickly, and I had two emergency surgeries and multiple hospital visits in my first year after diagnosis. College was extremely tough for me as I couldn’t seem to find any medications to get me into remission. I ended up changing majors and schools many times and never had the traditional college experience. I began getting involved with the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation shortly after diagnosis to learn more, but I didn’t imagine it would bring me so much joy and happiness through Crohn's & Colitis Foundation Camp Oasis, a summer camp program exclusively for children with Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.
I had been attending summer camps since elementary school, and I loved camp! I even asked my mom to send me to eight weeks of different camps one summer. Naturally, I began working at a camp as soon as I was 18, so when I heard about Camp Oasis, I knew I had to apply. My first summer at camp was in 2014 and I was struck by the strong bond between the campers and counselors. Everyone felt like they knew each other and were a close family from day one. This is something I always remember whenever we have new campers and new counselors. I go out of my way to make sure they know they are a part of the camp family. By Wednesday they have made friends at camp, and by Friday they feel like they have a group of friends who they have bonded with so closely and don’t want to leave.
Camp Oasis allows kids with Crohn's and colitis to just be kids for a week without the judgment and pressure of the outside world. Camp is filled with many emotions, but the sense of belonging is the most prevalent. There is nothing quite like a kid with an ostomy not feeling self-conscious in a swimsuit, or a kid with a unique diet or feeding tube not being questioned about it. One of my campers last year needed daily Ensure and we took turns drinking one with her for support because she hated them so much.
Camp Oasis is an incredibly special experience and truly the best week of the year. I get to act like a kid and show the campers that adults can have a good life even with a chronic illness. I can show my campers that I went through times in my disease journey and that I am there for them through those times. They show me resilience, fun, and joy like only kids can. Counselors often go to camp with the hope to help the campers by being a counselor when, in actuality, they help us just as much as we help them.
I can’t help but count down the days to camp each year. Then, I cry happy tears as soon as I arrive there! I can’t wait to dance and sing at every meal. Camp Oasis Michigan has many favorite songs that include: The Climb, Viva La Vida, and Take Me Home, Country Roads. Each year, there is usually a new camp favorite song to add to the mix! I also typically end up spending my birthday at camp, which is always filled with hundreds of children screaming “cha cha cha!” at the top of their lungs at me. One year my dad called for my birthday and said, “how is it spending your birthday in your happy place?” "Absolutely amazing," I thought.
As counselors, we make lifelong friends. I have traveled hundreds of miles to see them throughout the year, and they have visited me. I have been to the hospital to help them and shown them support through their difficulties with their disease. One former counselor even lived in my house temporarily when she moved states. Our campers have visited each other after traveling to new medical centers and many keep in touch all year. Camp Oasis bonds all of us in a very special way, and I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.
Lauren Bellflower is a Camp Oasis counselor and Crohn's disease patient.