Alli’s dad was the director of a camp for children with chronic illnesses and disabilities, so she grew up spending her summers alongside these campers — and watching them find joy despite the trials they faced. Here’s how that experience shaped her views on the power of laughter.
The sweet, clear sound of giggles echoes across the fields from the swimming pool. Shouts of glee emanate from the zip line, and laughter bounces off the water gently rocking the canoes. From every appearance and sound, this summer camp is nothing out of the ordinary. But if you look closely, you will find that these cries of joy shine all the brighter for what they have surmounted. You will hear just how precious laughter is for the pain, fear, and uncertainty that it drowns out. This camp’s heart, found at its geographical and figurative center, is a medical building. Old, weathered limestones are carefully placed within the stonework to draw out the rod with a snake wound around it, the Caduceus, the first hint of the joining of whimsy and play with practicality and medicine that occurs here.
Camp John Marc serves children with chronic illnesses and disabilities from the pediatric hospitals in the Dallas and Fort Worth area. For many of these campers, summer camp would not be possible given their medical needs; but when nearly your entire medical team comes to camp with you, possibilities start to change.
I hold camp incredibly dear as it was my home for over 20 years. My father directed Camp John Marc and our family lived on site each summer while I was growing up. It offered me a magical childhood while also teaching me about love and loss at a young age. One of my closest friends passed away at barely 13 after a long battle with cancer. But when I think of her, the ache of sorrow is offset by the memories of stolen pickles, burnt chicken, campfires, and sharing a love of dolls. She died too young, but her slow smile and laughter taught me just how brightly joy could shine amidst pain.
In college I spent my summers on staff at camp gaining a new perspective of how the healing power of laughter and play shapes lives. The weeks are organized by diagnosis not only for the campers to receive the best care, but also so they have the chance to meet other children with the same condition.
One day while chopping onions around a campfire, I witnessed an equal parts terrifying and amazing conversation between two young men with hemophilia. While sliding his fingers out from under the knife a millisecond before it chopped downwards, one young man said, “My mom never lets me use knives at home!” The other giggled and replied “Mine doesn’t either! She treats me like I could break.” They proceeded in companionable silence, knowing that the other truly understood the impact of this freedom while at camp. Later in the week, these new friends would cheer one another on as they learned to self-infuse (inject themselves with factor); a key step in achieving independence for a hemophiliac. These bonds are built on understanding one another, sharing a vulnerable piece of your story that is uniquely recognized by those who have walked the same path.
At camp the children aren’t patients, they are simply campers. After you’ve seen your doctor soaked in mud and plunged into a dunk tank, their presence doesn’t instinctively recall sterile hospital rooms. While the doctors and nurses hustle tirelessly to dose out medications each morning, their next priority is donning their swimsuits, hats, and sunscreen to plunge into play alongside the campers. In fact, on more than one occasion I have seen a doctor or nurse playing guitar, attempting to juggle, or pushing around a rolling table for a portable game of monopoly. Laughter ringing out from the medical building is exactly what camp was created for; joy and hardship stand side by side but the joy refuses to be eclipsed.
The other purpose of camp is to empower each child through play and adventure; providing a space where these campers could be exactly who they are: kids.
One sunny day, I was on the top of the ropes course tower when a camper climbed up eager to complete the zip line. She practically vibrated with energy and anticipation; but when it came time for her to zip, she hesitated. Then her eyes lit on a figure walking towards us. At twenty feet in the air, she recognized the outline of her nurse and screamed her name. The nurse waved enthusiastically, having come for exactly this moment. The young lady nodded at me that she was ready and off she flew. Her screams turned to peals of uproarious laughter that were positively infectious. I looked down to see that the nurse had tears flowing down her cheeks; she told me afterwards that they had talked about this moment for months. When times were hardest, they planned this adventure, trusting that the hope of this joyful moment could sustain them through the trials.
The final piece of camp which weaves into its magic is the healing power of nature. Spending hours gazing at the sky filled with stars, holding completely still so as not to bother the doe as she guides her fawn towards the lake, watching the lightning bugs begin their nightly glimmer at dusk, each of these practices holds a special blessing of wonder.
One evening, capture-the-flag was in full swing, children and teens running in wild zigs and zags, when I noticed one boy stop completely still. His face had a far-off look. When I walked up and asked if everything was alright, he wordlessly pointed to the sunset. A riot of golds, oranges, pinks, and coral lit up the sky, the silhouette of the camp gates in stark black against it. We stood in silence taking in the beauty together. His friends soon approached, ribbing him for missing out on some scheme to get the opposing flag, but he once again pointed to the sunset. I watched as an entire cabin of teenage boys stood in quiet wonder, soaking up the beauty of something as common and captivating as a sunset. Then the spell broke, one shoved the other, who chuckled, and it was all I could do to jump out the way as they raced off amidst laughter and hollers. Yet that moment stayed with me, the unity in appreciation, the volumes spoken in the quiet, and the bonds evident in the silence and laughter.
These moments are perfectly normal for most kids and yet extraordinary for the shared experiences that unite them at Camp John Marc. Joy is not dulled by the knowledge of pain or medicine or grief, instead the shouts of glee sound all the sweeter for what they have overcome. Medicine is doled out daily for these kids, but the most powerful cannot be contained in a bottle or tube — it’s the deep happiness of a good day spent laughing with a friend.