Camp for kids with limb differences also helps train students in physical and occupational therapy
Aug 2, 2023, 7:02 AM
HAMDEN, Conn. (AP) — Santino Iamunno was born without most of his right hand, and the 11-year-old tends to keep that hand in his pocket when around new people, just to avoid the questions.
But that’s not something he worries about at Camp No Limits, where all the young campers are dealing with limb loss or limb differences.
“It feels nice because I don’t have to, like, explain what happened that often,” Santino said. “Because outside of camp, I’ll get a lot of questions like, ‘What happened?’ And I mean, I’ll explain it to them. But here, it’s better here, because I don’t have to.”
Founded in 2004, Camp No Limits holds sessions in Maine, Missouri, Maryland, Florida, Idaho, Arizona, Texas, California and a special one in Connecticut, where the counselors are physical and occupational therapy students at Quinnipiac University, a private liberal arts school with about 3,000 undergraduate students.
At the four-day program, campers stay in the Quinnipiac dorms, attend physical therapy sessions, learn about prosthetics and other equipment and are taught life hacks such as how to tie their shoes, put their hair in a ponytail or climb stairs. They also can challenge themselves physically with activities such as learning or relearning how to ride a bicycle and trying out sled hockey.
Jeni Rhodes’ 8-year-old daughter Anya lost her left leg to cancer. She said seeing Anya push herself at camp to overcome obstacles and experience joy again has been special.
“She was able to get on a bike today and for the first time since her amputation last year,” Rhodes said. “So it’s a big opportunity not only to just be around other people and differences, but also for her to try new things.”
Many of the campers are accompanied by parents and siblings who also stay overnight, participate in some of the activities and create bonds with other families.
Rosanne Keep, of North Wales, Pennsylvania, came with her 12-year-old daughter Mariam, who was born with a congenital condition that led to the amputation of her right foot in January. She said the opportunity to meet other kids with limb differences and their families has been good for both her daughter and her.
“There are other kids out there, but depending on what circles you travel in, you just don’t see them that often,” Rosanne Keep said. “So it’s a good opportunity for her to meet some other kids, talk about, you know, what they’re going through, and also just as parents to meet other parents who are facing the same difficulties. It’s just good mentally.”
The camps are staffed with physical and occupational therapists, prosthetists and adult amputee mentors.
Quinnipiac’s camp is also a learning experience for the student counselors. It’s the only such partnership Camp No Limits has with a university. And the Quinnipiac camp gets visits each year from prosthetist students from the University of Hartford, so they can also both teach and learn from the kids.
“I love that we’re able to do this connection,” said Mary Leighton, a physical therapist and the camp’s founder and executive director. “When I was in school, we really had a very limited amount of time that was spent discussing amputees or individuals with limb differences.”
The camp experience is much more than just the practical application of what the students have been learning in the classroom, said Maria Cusson, a clinical associate professor of physical therapy at Quinnipiac.
“That personal connection, learning the stories of the campers, helping, you know, helping these kids and finding out who they are helps (the counselors) develop as students,” Cusson said. “It is more impactful than you can possibly imagine.”
Occupational therapy student Tessa Maloney, one of the camp’s student leaders, said she had a career epiphany while working as a counselor. She was watching the camp talent show when a 16-year-old boy she had been working with took the stage.
With the Olympic theme playing in the background, the teen, who had recently lost most of one leg to cancer, proceeded to climb a flight of stairs. That brought tears to Tessa’s eyes and convinced her that she should make a career of helping kids with limb differences.
“That was such a big step for him,” she said. “He couldn’t do that before he came to camp. That was something that he worked on while he was here, and he felt confident enough in that new ability to do it in front of everyone. And it was just really inspiring.”