Camp gives kids with transplants chance to be 'normal'

Special summer camp is staffed by volunteers, paid for by donations

HOLLY, Mich. - It's the start of a new day at Camp Michitanki in Holly, Michigan.  Canoes are stacked up by the lake, the water still, except for the light rain beginning to fall.

The skies are gray, as campers race to avoid the sprinkles on their way to the dining hall.

A rousing chorus of "Singing In The Rain" soon breaks out.

But not even Mother Nature dares to rain on this parade for long.  In a few minutes, the sun parts the clouds, and campers scurry off to their chosen activities.

At first glance, it looks like any ordinary summer camp, but if you look closely, you start to realize, these campers all share something extraordinary.

"What is special about this camp is that it is only for kids who have had transplants with like a lung or a kidney or a heart or a liver transplant," said 12-year-old Tommy. 

Tommy had a heart transplant.  At Camp Michitanki, that makes him just another camper.

"You feel like everyone is the same as you, you kinda fit in more," said Tommy.

errien had a kidney transplant when he was 3.  He's nine now and excited to experience everything Camp Michitanki has to offer.

"This is my very first time coming here and going to an actual camp," said Terrien.  "I want to do archery.  I like basketball and football and when we go swimming."

Here, no one questions a scar.  No one makes fun if you need a break.  For most of the campers, it's a unique opportunity to feel normal.

"It's like 'Oh wow, there are other kids out there who have had the same thing that I have,'" said 23-year-old Jacob, a liver recipient and former camper turned counselor at Camp Michitanki.

Tucker, 20, is also a former camper and counselor.  He had a liver transplant when he was just 14 months old.

"My mom told me when I was growing up, she always saw me as this sick kid.  Even if I wasn't sick at all, she would just protect me, and I am sure a lot of moms are like that and dads too," said Tucker. "To be able to be away from the parents and be a kid for a week, they don't get a lot of chances to do that.  A kid with a feeding tube or a kid in a wheelchair doesn't get a chance to go to a summer camp like this, but here they can."

The 100 campers at Camp Michitanki enjoy all of the traditional summer camp activities:  swimming, horseback riding, canoeing, arts and crafts, songs by the campfire, and even sleeping out under the stars.

Most children say the zip line is their favorite activity, including 16 year-old Jacob, a two-time kidney recipient.  Born with a spinal defect, Jacob has never been able to run.  But here on the zip line, he can fly.

"It was amazing," said a breathless Jacob.  "Just the adrenaline rush.  I love being here. Love just being one of the campers. Being able to do all of this stuff."

The campers' medical needs are carefully supervised by transplant nurses, physicians, social workers and others.  The staff are all volunteers, most using their own vacation time to make this possible, paid in the smiles of kids given a second chance.

Watching the children play, it's easy to forget what they've been through.  But when you stop for a moment and think, you realize each smile, each laugh, each hug, represents someone who wanted to help someone else live. 

"I have been given a second chance at life, so I don't want to waste it," said Tucker.  "I thank God every day that I was given the opportunity from a little girl who passed away, and I hope I can make the best of it and make her parents proud like they would want."

It's a sentiment shared by many of the older campers and counselors.  But for the younger ones, like 10-year-old heart recipient Sydney, camp is just fun.

"I am just really happy for this experience," said Sydney.

And as the day draws to a close and campers gather for s'mores and sleeping outdoors, it's clear, that's what the gift of life is really all about.

Camp Michitanki is funded entirely by donations and fundraising events.  Campers only pay a $50 registration fee, if their family can afford it.  To help support Camp Michitanki, click here and click on the "Donate" button.  In the comments, type "Camp" or "Camp Michitanki" to make sure 100% of your gift goes to pay camp expenses.

To join the Michigan Organ Donor Registry, click here.

To learn more about Camp Michitanki, click here.

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