How Camp Supports Positive Health Outcomes For Kids
The World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Here at SeriousFun Children’s Network, we could not agree more. We understand that health care, especially for the children we serve, does not end with a medical prescription or a doctor’s visit. In the words of one camp doctor, “The hospital takes care of the patient, while camp takes care of the whole child.”
Over the past three decades, SeriousFun camps and programs around the globe have helped promote positive health and psychosocial outcomes for children living with medical conditions. Here are just a few of the ways this happens.
Camp as a Health Intervention: Adherence to Life-Saving Medication
Across Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, SeriousFun partners with local organizations with expertise in pediatric health care and youth development to bring the magic of camp to children living with HIV and cancer. For kids living with HIV, adhering to a daily medication regime is necessary for survival. While global access to these life-saving medications has significantly improved over the past several decades, adherence remains a persistent barrier to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 3.3: to end the AIDS epidemic by 2030. Access to medication does not equate to adherence when powerful societal barriers such as stigma and discrimination are prevalent.
Where Does Camp Come In?
SeriousFun Partner Programs create camp environments built on a foundation of safety, love, and respect that promote adherence to medication using the mediums of play and social connection. Each morning and evening, campers take their medication together under the careful supervision of camp doctors and nurses. The experience is celebratory: Group cheers and high fives create a positive association and a shared social experience for campers. It’s a simple, yet powerfully effective, ritual. As camp doctor at Camp Hope—the SeriousFun Partner Program in collaboration with Botswana-Baylor Clinical Children’s Center of Excellence in Botswana—Dr. Bathusi Mathaba knows this well. “One parent said that their child seemed like a different person after camp because they now accepted themselves—and having accepted taking medication—which prior to camp was a struggle,” said Dr. Mathaba, “Although, at this stage, we might not be able to tell the long-term effect of camp, what we can see is that some of the kids who are facing adherence challenges put in more effort to take medication and stay healthy after an experience at camp.”
Such anecdotal feedback has been supported by the findings of a research study conducted by Baylor International Pediatric AIDS Initiative. The study investigated the effect of residential camp on children’s adherence to antiretroviral therapy at four SeriousFun Partner Program locations in Africa: Lesotho (the location of a former partner program), Malawi, Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland), and Uganda. Results showed a significant increase in campers’ adherence to medication six months after camp, when compared with their adherence rate in the six months prior to camp. This study provides one of the first pieces of quantitative research about positive health outcomes associated with the camp experience. While more research is needed to identify the potential long-terms impacts of camp programming, these findings—along with over a decade of anecdotal evidence—tell us that camp is an important health intervention included in the continuum of care for children living with HIV.
Camp as a Psychosocial Intervention: Hope and Resilience
In addition to improving camper’s adherence to medication and helping them to live longer lives, SeriousFun Partner Programs promote several positive psychosocial outcomes for children living with HIV. According to a global report by the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, mental health conditions are higher among people living with HIV than they are among the general population. Stigma and discrimination can lead to feelings of shame, isolation and a loss of hope for the future.
Where Does Camp Come In?
SeriousFun Partner Programs break down the stigma associated with HIV through fun, experiential learning activities. At Camp Addis in Ethiopia—a Partner Program run with Worldwide Orphans Foundation—the camp staff and medical team host an “HIV Talk Show”. During the session, older campers are “interviewed” by a “talk show host” (played by a camp staff member) in front of an audience of fellow campers. The interviewee is asked about what it’s like to live with HIV, how they cope, and what motivates them to take their medication. The camp doctor is also present during the session, to ensure that any questions about HIV transmission are answered correctly and to break down false myths. Similarly, at Camp Rainbow in Bangalore, India, campers participate in a session called “HIV Facts and Fiction”. The session is facilitated by the camp doctor and nurses, who give campers the opportunity to learn about HIV in a fun, quiz-style format with their peers. The result? A shared experience that promotes social connectedness and improves HIV knowledge.
The camp environment also promotes positive psychosocial outcomes thanks to a child-centered programming philosophy. At camp, everyone is valued for who they are. The Super Camper Award ceremony is a perfect example of this. Former Camp Addis Camp Director Lemlem Tale describes it as follows:
“A short celebration that takes place after meals where campers are recognized for something positive they were ‘caught’ doing at camp. It’s a time when camp leaders show a child, who often feels undervalued, that they have incredible worth in this world. At the heart of each celebration is the actual Super Camper Award itself. Camp counselors personalize the award with a description of what they saw the camper do, a positive label for the camper’s action, and then praise for the camper as an individual. This thoughtful delivery of praise allows children to internalize just how valued they really are. And while it’s merely a piece of paper, campers hold on to their award as if it was a million-dollar note. For many of the marginalized children camp serves, being celebrated or awarded is something they’ve rarely seen or heard before. That’s the magic behind this idea: We can help a child understand their value and boost their self-confidence. The message we are sending through simple and silly celebration is that they can overcome any challenge by simply bringing out the positive qualities that already exist deep inside.”
Partner Programs leaders have long observed these powerful psychosocial outcomes. In the words of Dr. Mogomotsi—Executive Director at Botswana-Baylor Children’s Clinical Center of Excellence—“Camp is an important psychosocial support mechanism… We know and we have faith that what we are doing is having a very positive impact, beyond just the disease, but in terms of the family unit and society as a whole.”
Dr. Mogomotsi’s observations are supported by research. In a 2013-2014 evaluation of SeriousFun Partner Programs in Ethiopia, India, and Vietnam, conducted in partnership with the San Diego State University, findings showed a 43-53% increase in social connectedness with peers after participation in camp programming. Further, in a 2017 pre- and post-camp survey conducted at Camp Hope in Malawi, over 90% of camp participants reported increased resilience and self-esteem after camp, and a greater sense of hope for the future.
SeriousFun for Serious Impact
Improving health outcomes. Boosting self-esteem. Promoting resilience. Instilling hope for the future. These are just a few of the positive health and psychosocial outcomes that SeriousFun camps and programs strive to create for children living with medical conditions around the globe. This is the serious business behind all the fun! We wouldn’t have it any other way.
As the health and safety of our campers, families, volunteers, and staff is always our top priority, we’re closely monitoring COVID-19 here at SeriousFun. To learn more and check on the status of upcoming or future camp and program sessions, please click here.