Finding community at camp

A young child and his mother stand side-by-side, smiling, in front of a camp cabin

Twelve-year-old Alijah was born with a congenital heart defect called hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS). He’s been treated at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital since he was born, and has undergone three open heart surgeries: the Norwood, Glenn and Fontan procedures.

His mom, Jamicka, says Alijah is doing stellar now.

“He’s off all of his major medications. He runs, he plays sports. He’s all boy.”

Despite Alijah’s progress, there’s one thing Jamicka thought he’d never do: attend summer camp. He hadn’t ever spent the night away from her, and she had concerns that he might not be able to fully participate in camp activities.

A child walks toward a camp cabin. He is holding a sleeping bag and wearing a backpack that says "Merry Heart Children's Camp. Can't Heartly Wait."“Talk about a parent’s ultimate worry and fear. All of the ‘what ifs’ I could think of consumed my mind,” she said. “Before I knew it, I would talk myself out of all of the reasons why camp would be a good fit for him.”

That all changed when they learned about Merry Heart Children’s Camp, a summer camp experience designed specifically for kids with heart conditions.

Founded by Dr. Mary Jo Rice, a retired OHSU Doernbecher pediatric cardiologist, Merry Heart Children’s Camp is a place where scars are celebrated, where friendships are formed and where confidence and community are built.

“Heart camp is very important to me because I get to be around adults and kids who are similar to me,” Alijah said. “I enjoy not being judged by the scars on my chest.”

That feeling of community has extended to Jamicka, too.

A child and young adult stand outside, smiling. The young adult is wearing a shirt that says, "Merry Heart Children's Camp." In the background are more people and a camp cabin

“As a single parent with no family in Oregon, having a sense of community is beyond important to me,” she said. “It’s such a relief taking him somewhere where he’s remembered, accepted, safe, and treated so kindly, where his scars don’t matter and where he meets new friends he can relate to and build ongoing relationships with.”

Camp is staffed by volunteer counselors as well as medical nurses and camp physicians, nurse practitioners and/or physician assistants to ensure the safety and well-being of the campers. In addition to being present to provide medical care, they also help guide conversations with the goal of increasing campers’ acceptance of themselves and others.

Of course, there are also some of the perks that one traditionally finds at summer camp. Some of Alijah’s favorites? Fishing (even though he’s yet to catch one!), swimming and archery.

“I like swimming because I get to play basketball in the pool,” he said.

The 2020 camp session was virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it remains unclear if the 2021 session will be in person. Please visit the Merry Heart Children’s Camp website for the most up-to-date information on camp!

Although it remains unclear if the 2021 camp session will be in person or virtual, Jamicka and Alijah look forward to returning to the community they’ve built through Merry Heart Children’s Camp.

“This camp holds so much meaning in our hearts,” Jamicka said. “They just make him feel so warm and welcome.”