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For Kids with Serious Illness, Summer Camp Experience Offers Year-Round Good Vibes

Anne Wilson

December 1, 2022

Campers and staff at Roundup River Ranch

The good vibes and happy memories a kid creates at summer camp can fuel them through the whole year. At Roundup River Ranch in Colorado, a camp that offers campers and their families respite from daily medical routines associated with serious illness, the joy that campers experience, then take home with them, has an extra impact.

“Roundup River Ranch staff has helped me improve my confidence in practically every aspect of life," said Lilly, a Roundup River Ranch camper. "At camp, I’ve made so many wonderful friends with similar stories and that has helped me feel like I am not alone in my struggles.” 

This past summer, Roundup River Ranch brought in The Playmaker Project team to kick off seasonal staff training. Camp Director Kendra Perkins, a trained Playmaker since 2021, said she knew it was something her camp families, and staff needed.

“What better way to kick off our first season back on-site with campers than to teach staff how to embrace each moment and create an O’Playsis with our campers!” said Kendra.

O’Playsis, an oasis of play, is Playmaker terminology that describes an optimal environment for kids – one that promotes curiosity, joy, healing, learning, and growth. Playmaker training teaches practices and activities that are meant to enhance, not replace, existing practices in school, camp, or educational environments.

“Here at camp, we see and know the value of parallel play and the healing that happens when kids have a safe space with trusted adults to just be a kid – we also see the growth that happens when those trusted adults help a child name and process through their challenges and come out on the other side a stronger self-advocate,” Kendra said.

Counselor Nolan Younoszai said his training reminded him about the power of optimism, especially for children who have faced adversity early in their lives. He said he saw observable changes in his campers this summer.

“Many of the kids I met this summer had a profound cynicism for life due to the pandemic and severe medical disorders. Showing and reminding them of the good in life helped to restore a trust that their future may be a happy one.”

Nolan said he saw more joy in the kids he worked with. “When children are given the space to act like a kid and have fun they are reminded of the good in this world and forget to focus on the negatives.” 

“When children are given the space to act like a kid and have fun they are reminded of the good in this world and forget to focus on the negatives.” 

Camper Sara said her favorite part of camp is “feeling like she belongs.” Another camper, whose name was not shared, said they learned “we all fight our battles in our own unique ways and our feelings are valid.”

Fortunately, these feelings and lessons don’t end when camp ends. O’Playsis can be created anywhere that supports free and joyful engagement, connection, and exploration of the surrounding world – not just places where s’mores, canoes, and campfire songs are plentiful. To support ongoing learning, growth and healing, Roundup staff taught parents ways to create O’Playsis at home.

“The opportunity to support our families with this incredible information and potentially life-changing practice is the ultimate way to send campers, and their families, home with tools to continue to heal and grow,” Kendra said.

“The positivity-driven environment and optimism is what I’m taking home with me and into the real world,” said Counselor Marta Bielas. “People deserve to be seen and treated with respect regardless of who they are and what they are going through. Especially kids. I really appreciate the Playmakers training. It gave me a totally different perspective on life, in a good way of course.” 

Roundup River Ranch is part of the SeriousFun Children’s Network, a global community of medical specialty camps and programs founded by Paul Newman. While at camp, or while participating in other SeriousFun programs, children and their families get to reach beyond illness to discover joy, confidence, and new possibilities. 

Alicia Barnatchez, Director of Training & Partnerships for The Playmaker Project, enthusiastically noted that the Roundup River Ranch training was conducted entirely virtually, and that Kendra’s initial training was also virtual.

“It’s exciting, because what we see at Roundup River Ranch is a wonderful testament to the strength of our virtual format,” she said. “We hope more future Playmakers and partners see the opportunity in this format and join the movement from wherever they may be.”

The Playmaker Project now offers both online and blended learning options, with plans to expand these offerings in 2023 and to reach more educators and more communities across the country.

Camper and staff member practice archery at camp
Roundup River Ranch Camp Staff and Camper Fishing
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