SUMMER CAMPS FOR YOUTH with skin diseases are rightly praised as an amazing way for children with severe dermatologic issues to experience a sense of normalcy and community while meeting other children just like them.
Yet the volunteers who serve the needs of the campers often take away just as much from the experience. American Academy of Dermatology member Lincoln Krochmal, M.D., describes his experiences at California’s Camp wonder as a life-changing experience.
Camp wonder, a free summer camp for children ages 6-17 with severe skin disease, plays host to around 80 campers for a week each summer. It is supported entirely by private donations , and has received glowing profiles in local media, USA Today, and The Montel Williams Show. It was started by Francesca Tenconi, who began the camp as a 16-year-old recovering from pemphigus foliaceous. That year, instead of the usual birthday gifts, she asked friends and family to make a donation to-ward starting up the camp. Nine years later, Tenconi operates the camp through her nonprofit Children’s Skin Disease Foundation (CSDF), and approximately 50 physicians, nurses, and other medical professionals donate their time every year.
For his part, Dr. Krochmal became involved with the camp when the company he was working for became a corporate sponsor of the camp.
“We got involved, my wife and I, in 2004 through the company that I was working for at the time. They were one of the corporate sponsors of the camp.
We volunteered each summer, just to help these kids as much as we could,” Dr. Krochmal said. “It was a camp where some of these kids had conditions that were life threatening some do not live past their twenties. So the camp is meant to provide opportunities for them to be treated like regular kids. To enjoy going horseback riding, playing baseball, going boating, and doing anything they possibly would like and are able to do. They get a week off where they’re not looked at by people staring at them, they’re not made to feel different, and they’re made to feel just as a kid. They look upon it as the most important week of the year.” A major source of funding for the camp is the annual CSDF gala, where attendees buy tables and sponsors provide items for auction. All proceeds of the event go to fund Camp Wonder and its activities. Dr. Krochmal said that while recent years have witnessed an overall slowdown in nonprofit funding, Camp wonder has so far been fully funded each year.
“It’s an annual gala event that receives items from a number of companies and individuals to put forth for both silent and live auction. You can buy tables for dinner, and all proceeds go to the camp. They have everything from boat rides in San Francisco and round trip packages to Las Vegas to scooters and bottles of wine,” he said. “It’s a very successful event. But as you can imagine, it’s gotten a bit smaller in recent years. They have reached the point where securing funding for next year is not a certainty.”
Aside from funding, volunteering as a medical professional at the camp presents its own challenges. As one might expect, even the changing of dressings can be a time-consuming part of every day.
“There are some campers who arrive with boxes and suit-cases full of dressing changes and they’re the ones who take the most medical time,” Dr.Krochmal said “Each dressing change, which can happen every day, is about a three-hour process. You have to remove the old dressings, completely rebandage for dinner, and the next day, you have to do it all over again The goal is to do this efficiently in order to return the camper to the daily camp activities.”
Forming relationships with the children at the camp has led Dr. Krochmal to reflect on what his time volunteering at camp has meant to him. It has been, he said, both rewarding and humbling.
“You meet some of the bravest kids you can imagine. They teach you about life’s lessons. They are very smart and wise beyond their age and tend to be very good observers of what is going on around them. Any problems you have, any issues you have, are minimal compared to what they go through. As a physician, you’re used to working with people who tend to get better, and some of these kids, they can’t get better. They know what’s going to happen eventually. It can be hard it’s very challenging to keep their spirits buoyed,” Dr. Krochmal said. “It’s about understanding them as a person as well as a patient and being their friend. They have to deal with these conditions 24/7. This experience makes you truly appreciate what these kids go through more than you can ever imagine. It’s really been the experience of a lifetime.”