I first experienced the safe and secure feeling of family when I discovered Youth Rally, a summer camp for kids ages 11-17 who live with chronic bowel or bladder conditions. This week-long experience equips campers with skills and confidence to navigate the challenges of living with an ostomy or chronic conditions. Both campers and counselors have experienced difficulties living with illness, which creates a safe environment for dialogue about our fears and struggles. The event is full of fun activities, group sessions, and social time but the true "Rally" experience happens when campers start to open up.
I've lived with gastroparesis my whole life and as a result, have lost my entire colon. After my large intestine was removed, most people I knew assumed that I was "cured" and that my struggles had ceased. Unfortunately, chronic illness has no end game. It can wax and wane but it does not disappear. There is no magic pill, dietary change, procedure, or surgery that can just take it all away. Believe me, if there was, I would have taken it long before someone asked.
Missing school due to surgeries, insecurities about ostomy bags and scars, and living with chronic pain can make anyone shy and withdrawn. Youth Rally fosters self-discovery and helps kids open up. Campers create friends with others like themselves and form bonds that last a lifetime. Since many of the counselors also live with similar medical conditions, campers see firsthand that they can live a full, normal life. My "Rally" family taught me that my circumstances don't define my limits, everyone has value, and that I can follow my dreams.
My first experience at Youth Rally was in 2015. I was blown away by the kindness and empathy, and for the first time in my life, I felt accepted and understood. I felt the loving connection of a family. I knew that I had to come back as a counselor, and this past summer I had that opportunity! I was so excited to give back to the family that had helped me so much. For one week in July, I experienced so much joy as I watched the campers grow together and gain self-confidence. Sitting on the beach during the field trip to the lake, I watched in awe and admiration as campers played confidently in their swimsuits, not worrying about their scars or ostomy bags. I even saw a camper smile from ear to ear as she shared with the group that she changed her ostomy appliance all by herself for the first time.
My Youth Rally family has supported and cared for me in ways that I never could have imagined. Their motto is: You Are Not Alone. These are the words I remembered when I left camp, along with a feeling that forever changed my life.