Merry Heart Children’s Camp is a camp for children with heart conditions, the idea of which, if you think about it, is both heartbreaking and life affirming. Kids with a heart condition can’t go to a regular camp, which is heartbreaking, because it’s like saying they’re not allowed to have fun. Also, when you’re a parent of the child with a heart condition, you’re too afraid to leave your child in someone else’s care. Because of this, you never get alone time with your spouse. Which is heartbreaking and not good for one’s mental and marital health.
But Merry Heart Children’s camp is also life-affirming. It shows that kids with heart problems can still have fun, still be kids. It gives them hope that they can carve out normal lives, with a bit of planning. The very existence of such a camp shows that our world is good and kind, and that our society thinks how to adapt things for kids with health issues. That the world knows fun is important.
When Merry Heart Children’s Camp applied for a small grant, we saw, more than anything, a camp with heart. We were happy to give them a bit of help. And of course Kars4Kids excited to know more about this special place. We spoke with Executive Director/Camp Director Robert McDonald to find out all about the Merry Heart Children’s Camp:
Kars4Kids: How many U.S. children have heart conditions?
Robert McDonald: Congenital Heart Defects (CHD) affect nearly 1% of children―or about 40,000 births per year in the United States.
Half of these children have serious CHD requiring surgeries or other procedures during their lifetimes.
Kars4Kids: What made you decide to start Merry Heart Children’s Camp? Why is there a need for this summer camp?
Robert McDonald: The camp was the dream of Dr. Mary Jo Rice, Founder and President of the Board. Thirty years ago, parents of a child with CHD asked her why there was not summer camp for children with heart conditions. Once she retired from the field of pediatric cardiology, she started Merry Heart Children’s Camp.
Merry Heart Children’s Camp (MHCC) is the first and only camp in Oregon for youth with heart conditions. Many of the youth attending camp have never met another youth with CHD and have been protected by their families. MHCC gives them the opportunity to become more active and independent under medical supervision. They are often serf-conscious about their scars and feel they are different from other youth. Our camp helps them overcome issues surrounding their heart conditions and learn more about their heart condition. Our counselor in training program helps teens transition into adult life and teaches the leadership skills.
Kars4Kids: Are your staff trained to watch out for specific symptoms?
Robert McDonald: Yes, our volunteer staff consists of nurses who work on the cardiac units at both area children’s hospitals. Our physicians/providers are either pediatric cardiologists, pediatric cardiology fellows, nurse practitioners or physician assistants who are specifically trained in caring for youth with heart conditions.
Kars4Kids: Are you close to a decent hospital in case of emergency?
Robert McDonald: Yes, there are two children’s hospital in Portland, Doernbecher Children’s Hospital and Randall Children’s Hospital. If there is an emergency, we send the kids to one of these hospitals.
Kars4Kids: What if most of the kids in a group can take part in an activity, but a small number cannot? How do you keep them from feeling sad and alienated?
Robert McDonald: The majority of the kids take part in all the activities. If there are some kids who cannot or do not want to participate, we have staff that will help them decide what they want to do. We have games set-up for them to play, e.g. corn hole, hula hoops, ladder ball, or they can have quiet time with talk or rest. We also have sessions where they or their cabin mates can choose what activities they want to do.
Kars4Kids: How much of your staff is made up of volunteers? Do they undergo some sort of training?
Robert McDonald: We are an all-volunteer organization with no paid positions. The summer camp staff undergoes camp training each year before the camp.
Kars4Kids: We know that camp benefits children, but what are some of the ways that parents benefit from having their children at Merry Heart?
Robert McDonald: Because there are, at Merry Heart, medical personnel trained to care for these youth, parents feel their children are safe. Our camp is often the first camp their children have ever attended. We have had several parents tell us that their child comes back from camp with more self-confidence, wanting to be more active, which allows the family to do more activities together, and knowing more about their heart condition, too.
An email from one mother whose daughter had a heart catheterization after camp stated our achievements better than we could: “This hospital experience was different than all others. She was a friend, not just a patient! She ran into staff that had been at camp, they talked camp stories! She chose to wear her camp T-shirt during the stay.
“Camp was a critical turning point in her life. She could let go & truly be a kid away from home! It seems to have instilled a new level of confidence in all of us in the possibilities of safe adventures with a staff that gets her & won’t over/under react! Just wanted to let you know how powerfully you have impacted lives.”
Kars4Kids: Is it true that while the cost of camp is $555, the only charge to campers is the $55 registration fee? How many campers did you accommodate in 2019? You must be busy most of the year with fundraising!
Robert McDonald: We had 49 campers and 7 counselors in training this year. Not only do we cover the costs of camp for our youth, but we also cover the camp costs of our volunteers. We are extremely busy each year fundraising, which is why we are grateful to receive support from Kars4Kids.
Kars4Kids: What’s next for Merry Heart Children’s Camp?
Robert McDonald: We continue to fundraise, but our goal is to have a paid part-time development director to help us fundraise all year round.