Creating Magic at The Painted Turtle

For my STEP Signiture Project, I worked as a cabin counselor for three months at a free-of-charge overnight summer camp for kids with life-threatening medical conditions in Lake Hughes, CA called The Painted Turtle. My role was to foster an environment of possibility and belonging for children who have a diagnosis. I collaborated with the medical team to provide routine daily care, and facilitated activities that were challenging yet medically and developmentally appropriate for a diverse group of children.

I can confidently say that working at The Painted Turtle has made me a more empathetic and thoughtful person and a much better nurse. My assumptions on what a medically fragile child can accomplish were completely transformed. I learned through advocating and supporting children with a diagnosis all summer, that children are exceptionally resilient, brave, and intelligent. This whole experience reminded me that even if someone has a life-threatening medical diagnosis, doesn’t mean they have to be deprived of opportunities that summer camp can provide like belonging, adventure, community, and lasting friendship. This summer, I learned how to adapt: adapt a 40 high ropes course and zip line to accommodate children in wheelchairs, adapt to collaborate with a new team each week, and adapt my perceptions of what exceptionally bright children can offer the world.

This summer, I lived in a world where the lofty values of belonging, inclusivity, unconditional love and support were upheld in actuality. In turn, I had the opportunity to support deep friendships among children who, because of their diagnosis, often feel utterly alone in “the real world.” The first time I felt this sense of true belonging through my campers was the very first week of camp. Session One of camp was for children who have dwarfism. Many of these kids have spent their whole lives being stared and being thought of as different. At The Painted Turtle, every kid looks like them, and because these kids share this fundamental common ground, they now have place to shine and a place to call their home. New campers come shy and reserved on arrival day. By stage night they are belting their favorite song over a mic in front of 100 of their new friends and counselors. This is part of the Magic of the Painted Turtle: the place creates a space where all are welcome and kids are the center.

I had the unique opportunity to not only work with kids with a diagnosis, but also alongside counselors who have a medical diagnosis as well. Many of my closest friends from camp were previous campers themselves. The Painted Turtle is special not just because it creates an inclusive environment for campers, but also because it gives adults who have a medical diagnosis a place to empower youth and use their skills to bring a little magic to the world. One example is a good friend of mine who has a type of skeletal dysplasia that limits his mobility to a specially designed power wheelchair. You can catch this friend of mine capturing magic moments all around camp as our camp photographer. My idea of inclusivity has been profoundly and positively altered thanks to The Painted Turtle.

Adaptability and creativity are key features of a cabin counselor at The Painted Turtle. We make the previously impossible, possible for our kids at camp. Kids who are completely wheelchair bound can fly up a 40ft high ropes course and zip-line down. Kids who have never swum in a pool because of accessibility or infection risk, can splash and float with their friends. Kids who have never self-infused their own IV medication, can become one step closer to being independent in their medical care. Kids who have never spent a night away from their parents because of their intense medical situation can grow in independence and self-reliance surrounded by their peers at camp. In order for all this magic to happen, my fellow teammates and I had to get creative by collaborating with parents, doctors, nurses, and child life specialists. We altered routine, got messy, took initiative, and worked with these special kids to create a place where anything is possible.

My passion for pediatric nursing has been reinvigorated and deeply grounded thanks to The Painted Turtle. I will take the lessons of inclusivity, optimism, and empathetic listening with me as I finish my last year of nursing school at OSU. This summer at camp has made me a better nurse and a better person. I have gained skills in collaborating with an entire medical team to achieve a brilliant goal. I feel right at home advocating and working with kids who live with life-threatening medical conditions. I know that I can bring this boundless love and magic to the children and families I will serve in my future career.