by Amy Saffell
No matter how much a person accepts and embraces their disability, most people still strive to fit in with and assimilate to the rest of society as much as possible. Often it’s the ease and confidence with which a person goes through life that determines their ability to do so, regardless of how differently someone may have to do something. As such, whether a disability is congenital or acquired, people often spend lots of time learning either to be as self-sufficient in their daily living as possible or to overcome the stereotypes of disability by trying new, exhilarating, and even seemingly somewhat daring, recreational activities as they gain their independence. This kind of learning often flourishes best with the encouragement of their peers who also have disabilities. Since the early 1990s, Shriners Hospital For Children - Chicago has been helping youth and young adults with spinal cord injuries do just that.
Under the leadership of Sara Klaas, now Director of Spinal Cord Injury Service, Shriners-Chicago has led a host of programs and camps for people with spinal cord injuries (most of them related to sports and strength conditioning) that aim to help people with disabilities experience activities thought to be out of their comfort zone, which includes anything from scuba diving to adaptive cycling to a travel adventure trip. An overarching intent of these was, and still is as many of these programs still exist today, to help newly injured kids to regain the freedom and the self-esteem that they held previously by allowing them to return to familiar activities from their days of being able-bodied or by learning something new that they had always believed was an impossibility with their new disability.
Overall, the programs were a huge success. The recreation therapists there saw real progress in their patients as they worked on their strength and movement, raised their self-esteem through their accomplishments, socially interacted with their peers, and had fun in the process. Klaas, the recreation therapists, and other spinal cord injury program staff were pleased with everything that their patients had achieved and were proud to be a part of their rehabilitation. With as active as their program was, they really believed they had thought of pretty much everything to aid their patients’ transition back into society. However, one of their patients came to them with an idea that would add another important aspect to their camps.
A teenage girl who had been active in the sports camps told Klaas that, while she really enjoyed all that she had participated in at Shriners-Chicago and how it had helped her to become more active and independent, the day that she learned how to put on makeup again was really the day that she felt most like herself after her accident. In addition to the sports focused camps, which were the sole focus up until that point, she suggested that there also be some kind of “girlie” camp in their spinal cord injury program that focused more on the day-to-day living that adolescent girls like herself typically experience.
Klaas thought about it and realized that a fundamental group of patients had been overlooked. Not necessarily everyone, particularly the girls, enjoyed such a focus on sports and needed something different that would cater to them in their rehab journey. Spinal cord injuries significantly alter anyone’s self-perception, body image, and self-esteem, but at a time when any young girl’s hormones are raging and pressures to fit in weigh heavy on their minds, having to adjust to life using a wheelchair as an adolescent girl is particularly tough. Klaas agreed that some kind of camp needed to address these issues and that she would take on the challenge of creating one. As a result, in 2006, GLAHM (Good Life and Healthy Mind) Camp was born to help adolescent girls learn to confidently embrace their abilities, individuality, and femininity. Just this summer, the 5th GLAHM Camp was successfully held and more are in the works.
Typical campers range in age from 13-21, and although they are typically not in-patients at the time of their participation in the camp, all of them have received services at Shriners-Chicago at some point. Just as they did for their medical services, they come from the entire Midwest section of the country to participate in GLAHM Camp, truly making it a diverse group of young ladies and adding a unique aspect to the camp. One of the camp’s goals is for the girls to learn from one another. Adolescent girls often love to talk--a quality in which Klaas attributes a lot of the success of the program, as sharing information about their lives with the group facilitates learning.
The diversity factor of the participants also aids in the process because each of the young ladies brings to the camp life experiences that differ due to their age, level of disability, community offerings, and the level of support of friends and family. While the girls may feel like they don’t fit in amongst their able-bodied peers, the common bond of having a disability allows them the freedom and comfort to open up and talk about both the challenges and victories that they have experienced in their own lives. It’s an important facet of every young girl’s life, but for girls who have just had their way of life altered significantly, conversations about day-to-day living can lead to a significant breakthrough in someone’s level of independence and drive to succeed. As Klaas says, “Each girl also learns so much from the other girls--about self-care, school, jobs, dating, relationships, etc. That is truly invaluable.” What one girl may have experienced many times, another may never have faced, but she will be more equipped to deal with the situation in a positive way thanks to the advice of her fellow GLAHM Campers.
GLAHM Camp is typically held at a local Chicago hotel and runs four days long, with activities beginning around 9 am each morning and often lasting into the late night hours. A simple glance at the schedule brings back memories of the days of girlie high school sleepovers and, while there are many similarities, including every facet of camp being about the campers having fun, everything about GLAHM Camp also provides opportunities for the girls to see just how beautiful they truly are, both inside and out, and how physically taking care of themselves gives them greater opportunities for success in the future. Campers are treated to everything that girls love, including delicious food, movies, a trip to the salon, shopping, makeup consultations, and, of course, plenty of time to get to know one another as they learn that embracing their femininity is just as important to them now as it was before they had a disability.
In addition, the camp emphasizes areas related to wellness that impact each camper’s quality of life. There are talks on healthy living and nutrition, personal fitness consultations, and a cooking class--each designed to help the girls realize how important respecting and caring for their bodies truly is. The outings that are a part of GLAHM Camp help the girls to put what they have learned into practice and to see how they could take the ideas of healthy living back into their own communities. As Klaas puts it, the hope is that “each camper can enhance their assertiveness, increase their communication skills, become better problem solvers, and see that obstacles can often become opportunities.”
While each GLAHM Camp is similar in its theme, Klaas allows the program growth opportunities as new ideas and recommendations are always being pursued. For instance, based on feedback from last year’s participants, this year’s camp included a new adventure, which was an Odyssey Boat Cruise on Lake Michigan, complete with dinner, dancing, and fireworks on the last night of camp. The dinner cruise marked a change from past years. Previously, before its Chicago run ended, the culminating event had been going to see the musical “Wicked” as a chance to have an enjoyable evening out on the town while seeing the theme of beauty represented in theater. As Klaas says, it’s “the perfect musical to discuss how women in wheelchairs can be seen ‘tragically beautiful,’ as well as to further explore inner versus outer beauty.” While it’s a learning opportunity that was replaced by other activities this year, the musical was an insightful way to expose the campers to these ideas in a different way.
Where there are adolescent girls, there will always be an interest learning oppportunity about the latest in makeup, clothes, and boys; but what’s more important is that the girls learn about the inner beauty that lies within each one of them. For most of the GLAHM Campers, they’ll go back to their communities where peers can be cruel and pressures to measure up to women in the media can be overwhelming. While they may have learned how to channel their femininity, the girls must still wrestle with being different. The campers can’t change their new bodies, but they can change their perspectives. As Klaas puts it, the ultimate goal of the camp is for adolescent girls to “embrace their femininity and to also learn that true beauty comes from the inside out.”
Klaas hopes that the lessons learned at GLAHM Camp will reach well beyond the few days that the campers are together. As they go through the rest of their lives, she hopes “that each camper sees her own immense worth and value while learning that true beauty comes from inside.”
Klaas is proud to say that other Shriners Hospitals have started to replicate GLAHM Camp, but she would love to see even more facilities offer such a unique program for girls all over the country and with a variety of different disabilities included. For more information about how to start your own GLAHM Camp, visit www.shrinershq.org.