Volunteering: The best way to spend your summer

Rob Pleticha, whose day job is Online Communities Manager for RareConnect at EURORDIS, the European rare diseases organisation, volunteers every year to help children who are living with illness or rare diseases. A short time ago, he spent a week at Barretstown and he’s been kind enough to write for Special Needs Jungle about his experience and the camp.

You arrive the night before the training. It’s dark but the trees are bright green, the horses are so comfortable, they lay down in the pasture sleeping, and the cabins spread thorough out the grounds emit a warm glow. You sleep well in the Irish night as fresh air fills you.

You’ve come to Barretstown in Ballymore Eustace, Ireland to participate as a volunteer “cara” at an eight day camp summer session. 120 kids from 7 countries will arrive in two days. They all share the common experience of living with a serious medical condition at a young age.

Barretstown is a member of the European Global Organisation of Serious Fun Children’s Network camps founded by Paul Newman. The five camps in the European network allow over 3,000 children from 26 countries to attend summer camp and have life changing experiences. The services are always free of charge to families.

In addition to camps for young people, the Serious Fun Network also organises sibling camps, teen camps, family, and bereavement camps.

It takes around 2,200 volunteers a year to support the core full time staff. Volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds including students, retirees, the local community, international visitors, and medical professionals. To find out more about volunteering at the Serious Fun camps visit their site.

Before the campers arrive, there is a full day of training for all volunteers with the other volunteers. A full Irish breakfast starts the mornings off right. The overwhelming spirit is of support, preparation, curiosity and laughter. The day begins with a discussion about therapeutic recreation (TR),the core philosophy behind Barretstown’s summer camp program.

TR creates meaningful experiences for campers by giving individuals an opportunity to learn about themselves and their abilities from a variety of activities that challenge their perceptions of themselves “TR interventions enhance self-esteem, disease knowledge, emotional well-being, adaptation to illness and symptom control.” (Walker,Pearman 2009)and require new skills to be learned in a supportive environment. There are periods of reflection before bed and thorough out the day that gives campers a chance to integrate these experiences while building social bonds.

The campers finally arrive. Everyone is excited, full of questions, and eager for the days ahead. The language barrier across the different nationalities melts away with volunteer translators and careful planning by the programme staff. Days go quickly and are structured with two activity periods in the morning and two in the afternoon with camp wide activities after dinner. The vast selection includes: canoeing, fishing, arts and crafts, high ropes, horses, photography, theatre, and music.

Simply, it is a place of first names, high fives, smiles, and encouragement. The doctor’s visits, difficult treatments, and discomfort at school are replaced with one thing: FUN.
Fun and challenge is discovered by each individual in their own

“When I was sick, I lost my confidence because I missed out on normal things. My time in Barretstown gave that back to me.”

unique way. We all have different levels of comfort. Some of the most confidence developing experiences can be witnessed when the camper

comes down from the High Ropes course or from the back of a gentle horse. Rebuilding is going on, and a volunteer is in a privileged situation to be a part of it.

The effect of attending a camp like Barretstown has a lifelong impact.