It’s July, the height of summer in upstate Illinois, and 10-year-old Ellie Fontanetta and her mom, Nikki, turn down the long drive with their windows down, soaking up the familiar air and buzzing with excitement for another unforgettable week at Camp Independence, one of many weeks dedicated to medical camps at YMCA Camp Duncan.
Ellie has spina bifida, a condition requiring crutches, leg braces and a daily regimen of medications and bathroom routines. Spina bifida occurs when a baby is in the womb and the spinal column does not close all of the way. At Camp Independence, a state-of-the-art facility built expressly for kids with spina bifida, Ellie experiences confidence building activities, such as kayaking and swimming, and as she does so forges unbreakable friendships with children who experience life in ways similar to her.
Created by Chicago neurosurgeon David McLone, MD, to teach independent living skills to young people with spina bifida, Camp Independence is staffed with a medical health care team and highly skilled counselors and employees. This team understands that for children with spina bifida, summer camp is about more than just the activities offered or the quality of the facilities. It is about the promise of helping campers grow and gain independence in a safe and fun environment. Many of these campers have never spent a single night away from their parents, let alone a week.
“At Camp Independence, each of our campers has their own counselor,” Dr. McLone says. “This is how we can guarantee that they’re safe in this environment.” All counselors are certified in first-aid, CPR and basic water safety and receive extensive onsite training in camper care and supervision.
For Ellie’s first two summers, her counselor was Jess from Australia. “Jess was the perfect fit for Ellie,” says Nikki. “She needed someone who was like a coach, the right mix of compassion and challenge. ‘Can you push a little farther? Can you try a little harder? You can do this!’”
The best part about Camp Independence is that it gives kids like Ellie the full YMCA camp experience, from flag-raising in the morning to s’mores around the campfire at night.
“They get an opportunity to camp just like other kids, while still being well taken care of,” says Nikki. “Ellie loves every minute of it.”