AVANT — Nine summers ago, Westin Friederich was a shy, homesick 8-year-old battling a heart condition. Then he spent a summer at Camp Strong.
Every summer, Westin makes the 8½-hour drive from Iowa to reunite with his friends and make new memories.
“Honestly, the atmosphere here is unlike anything I have ever experienced before in my life,” he said. “It is the only place where I can honestly and truly be myself.”
Located in Avant, 30 minutes north of Tulsa in Osage County, the camp is one of several programs across the country aimed at helping children with medical conditions focus on just being kids. Whether it is a 14-year-old diagnosed a decade ago or an 8-year-old receiving treatment, Camp Strong was created to give campers time away from hospital walls.
In 2010, the Children’s Hospital at Saint Francis started hosting a summer camp for younger patients ages 6-18, with either a heart diagnosis or cancer.
Because of Saint Francis, family support and donations on behalf of community foundations, no child is turned away.
Over the past three years that she has attended the camp, sixth-grader Joanna White has seen the staff go out of their way to ensure everyone has the best experience possible, she said.
“The inspiration that the staff gives to the campers here is so selfless,” Westin said. “I have seen it my whole life coming here. They give their everything to the campers.”
Becky Reinholz, a clinical manager at the Children’s Hospital, said the camp gives participants time to socialize and connect with peers who have similar experiences.
“At camp they get to be kids and not be defined by their disease,” Reinholz said. “They get to have fun and be as normal as possible.”
Unlike traditional camps, many of the campers receive treatment at the camp.
Behind the scenes, medical staff members distribute medication and handle any problems that arise. Doctors and nurses — often the same ones treating the kids back home — also participate in the weeklong fun.
Reinholz said that on Wednesdays, oncology and cardiac doctors will visit the campsite to spend time connecting with the campers through games and laughter.
After nine years of attending the camp, Westin, now 17, is ready to make the switch from camper to counselor next year.
He said he wants to inspire other campers that come through the camp.
“I’ll never forget the initial feeling of relief,” Friederich said about the camp environment, where no one stares at a scar or bald head.