MDA Summer Camp is Where I Learned What it Means to Live Unlimited

joe camp pond
My counselor, Evan, and I pose for a picture at the camp fishing pond during my last year as an MDA camper.

Although I would later come to associate MDA Summer Camp with the words joy, freedom and independence, that’s not how I felt in the beginning. In fact, I was terrified to go.

When my mom told me she had signed me up for MDA’s summer camp in Empire, Colorado, I threw a massive temper tantrum and begged her to spare me from what I was sure would be a week of pure torture. I was six years old and couldn’t imagine leaving her for an extended period of time. Until that point, she was my only caregiver, and I depended on her for everything. I feared being taken care of by someone I’d never met before.

My mom relented and let me stay home. But when I turned nine, she put her foot down. I was going to camp, no matter what. Finally — and reluctantly — I attended my first year of camp in 2000. Looking back, I don’t know what I was so afraid of — summer camp turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life. It’s one of the top experiences I credit with helping me realize the full potential of my life.

joe camp fishing
Fishing at the pond. I grew up on a lake so fishing is in my blood.

At MDA Summer Camp, I learned  important life lessons that made me who I am today. I learned that my mom was not the only person capable of taking care of me. It was very freeing to, for the first time, be independent from my family and experience life my way. I began to see the future I could direct for myself and that excited me. During my time at camp I had the opportunity to go fishing, make interesting crafts, go swimming and join scavenger hunts. All of these activities are things that I had done prior to coming to camp. But it was great to see how other people, like me, managed aspects of their care and daily living. That’s what I learned.

When my mom picked me up at the end of my first week of summer camp, I didn’t want to leave. I cried the whole way home because I already missed my new friends. I found myself counting the days until I could return.

I attended summer camp until I was 16 years old. Every year brought me even closer to my dream of living independently and having a life of my own.  And again, every year I cried when I had to leave. I’m thrilled to say that I still keep in contact with many of the people I met there and they are still close friends of mine. Since our time together at camp, I have watched my friends go on to have successful careers, start families and raise children, live independently, and follow their dreams — regardless of the barriers they face. Each of their stories has inspired me to

joe camp harley
Once a Harley guy, always a Harley guy.

do the same, and I know that attending MDA Summer Camp was a huge catalyst in helping me achieve my goals as an independent young professional.

Not only was summer camp a successful experience for me, but it was for my family as well. No matter how much you love someone and no matter how much you want to be there for them, caregivers need breaks to maintain their sanity and care for themselves. I can distinctly remember the glow on my mom’s face as she picked me up from summer camp. I could tell that she had finally gotten some well-deserved rest, a chance to enjoy the things that she often didn’t have time for and, above all, an opportunity to tend to the needs of my sisters who deserved independent time with their mom, too.

It is virtually impossible to explain how much the overall experience of summer camp positively impacts the lives of the individuals and families MDA serves. For us, it’s the “restart button” for our year. Living with and caring for someone with life-threatening muscle-debilitating diseases is not easy. But to be able to look forward to a week of rest and personal freedom is something I know my entire family was thankful for.

Make a donation to help give kids with muscular dystrophy their “best week of the year”.