Free summer camp for kids with arthritis provides community, fun

LIVERMORE, Calif. (KGO) -- It's hard to imagine that a child could have arthritis, but thousands suffer from this painful illness every day. Fortunately, they can talk about their condition with others just like them at Camp Milagros, a free summer camp in Livermore, Calif., provided by the Taylor Family Foundation.

The Arthritis Foundation statistics are shocking: Arthritis affects nearly 300,000 children under the age of 16 in the United States.

Children at the summer camp shared their experiences with ABC7 News.

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"Sometimes it's hard, because not a lot of your family or your friends understand you," said 9-year-old Sienna when she was asked what it's like to have an auto-immune disorder. "But when we come to this camp, all of us have the same issues, so it's really fun."

Finding out you have arthritis is a big moment.

"I jumped off the swing set, I sprained my knee and it kept hurting. They realized it was more than injury at this point," said 9-year-old Isabella.

"Sometimes when you're sick, your joints attack themselves and it makes it hard to move and do stuff," Rylee, 11, explained. "Wherever you have it, it just hurts."

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The kids don't let their disorder stop them when it comes to camp activities during Camp Milagros, which has been around for 17 years. And some of those original campers are now junior counselors, like 18-year-old Aysha.

"It's really nice to connect with the kids because I've been in their shoes," Aysha said. "I know exactly what it's like to go to school and have to explain to teachers that you're suffering from a chronic illness that they've never heard of."

"I remember my second year at Camp Milagros before they found a medication that worked. My foot was super swollen and I had to be piggy-backed around camp," said Jacob, 20. "Now I'm up and moving with the kids and yeah, I wouldn't be able to be in this position if it weren't for the help of the doctors."

Camp Milagros always has a medical team on hand who volunteer their time, including Dr. Imelda "Mel" Balboni, a pediatric rheumatologist with Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford.

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"They have many medications, sometimes injections, and they aren't comfortable, their parents aren't comfortable sending their kids to camp where they might not have oversight," Balboni explained.

"I use it as an opportunity to remind them that they are just regular kids, their arthritis is just a small piece of their pie and that they can do anything and everything other kids do," said Nurse Practitioner Quoc Du.

The free camp is provided by the Taylor Family Foundation, which was founded by Elaine Taylor to help children with life-threatening and life-altering conditions. And the Foundation can use help all year round.

So what can you do?

"Donations, cash donations, because that's how we fund the programs," said Elaine Taylor. "But beyond that, there's in kind donations, so it can be anything from food, beverages or toys, noodles, things for the pool, life jackets."

The kids at arthritis camp enjoy all kinds of memories and many of them last all year -- some last a lifetime. But the one important lesson they learn is to treat everyone with kindness and respect.

"Everybody here is really nice," Sienna said. "I feel like we're all just a group of friends and family."
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