Brainy Camps Helps Special-needs Kids Enjoy Summer Camp
July 6, 2015
by Gail Scott
The project has a funny name — Brainy Camps — but its founders are very serious about helping kids with chronic health conditions.
Started 20 years ago by Sandra Cushner Weinstein, the Brainy Camps Association is a consortium of residential summer camps, family camps and retreats operating under the umbrella of Washington-based Children’s National Medical Center (CNMC). Over the past two decades, some 400 youths have been helped each summer, thanks to more than 125 volunteers who make the project possible.
The week-long camps are located at an American Camping Association-approved facility in High View, West Virginia, and help kids learn about their specific condition while teaching them to become effective partners in managing their own care.
The 10 chronic health conditions are epilepsy, autism spectrum disorder, Tourette syndrome, congenital heart disorders, Type-1 diabetes, sickle cell anemia, cerebral palsy, neurofibromatosis, Down syndrome and childhood obesity.
Last month, Weinstein was honored at a fundraising dinner hosted by Elena Poptodorova, Bulgaria’s ambassador to the United States. Weinstein, who started out as a physical therapist, is today director of services and camps at CNMC’s Department of Neurology.
“We help children look forward to the future,” said Weinstein, who’s also on the faculty of pediatrics and neurology at George Washington University’s School of Medicine. “Are you tall? Are you short? Your height doesn’t define who you are. Neither does saying you have epilepsy. We want to allow children to find other kids who are like themselves; a place where they feel comfortable and accepted.”
Said one grateful camper: “I could have gone to just any camp, but it would never have been as good because Brainy Camps is one of the only places that understands me for who I am. It was OK to be myself there. I learned my differences don’t matter. I want to go back again and again.”
Parents appreciate the opportunity for their children. “Camp helped my daughter feel empowered to face her epilepsy,” said one. “She gained so much confidence.”
Funds are raised privately so that all children who need it can attend CNMC’s camp, regardless of their family’s financial situation. This event alone attracted 150 people and raised $35,000 for the Brainy Camps project. As Poptodorova noted, “the donor system in America is not matched by anything else, anywhere else.”
Shahin Mafi and The Azar Foundation sponsored the reception and dinner for the nonprofit group Children of the World. Mafi, founder and CEO of a Virginia-based home healthcare company, named the foundation after her mother.
“The children with special needs are usually isolated,” said Mafi, praising the program. “I hope this will grow all over the nation and even go international.”
As one enthusiastic repeat camper with neurofibromatosis said, “For the past five years I have gone to Camp New Friends. I cannot begin to describe what camp is like. I don’t know where to start. Did you ever hear the theme song to the TV show ‘Cheers?’ The beginning of that song says it all. Camp New Friends is a place where children and young teenagers can go and everybody knows their name and the worries are all the same.”
And as for the funny name, the website explains it this way: “As everyone who lives with a chronic health disorder knows, you have to be smart to live well with something that is going to impact your life on a daily basis. That’s what Brainy Camps is all about, teaching kids to live wisely with their conditions without allowing their disorder to define who they are.”