Summer Camp Prescription: Fun!

Sophie Smith 1-smallThe first time Kim Whittinghill-Smith dropped off her daughter, Sophie, at The Center for Courageous Kids summer camp, she was convinced that Sophie wouldn’t stay.

Then, 12, Sophie had never been away from her parents. Because of a loss of oxygen at birth, Sophie has cerebral palsy, moves around in a power wheelchair, has impaired speech and needs round-the-clock care.

“As we drove away that day, I kept expecting to get a call from the camp to come get Sophie,” Kim said.

The Center for Courageous Kids (CCK) sits in the rolling hills of Scottsville, outside Bowling Green. As Kim and Mike drove to Bowling Green where they planned to spend the night, a funny thing happened.

No call from the camp.

So, they drove home to Goshen outside of Louisville and called the camp the next day.
“How’s Sophie doing?” Kim asked nervously.

The answer surprised her.

“Sophie was doing great and having the time of her life,” Kim said.

That came as no surprise to those at the camp. Since 2008, CCK has served nearly 22,000 seriously ill children and family members, providing a priceless experience – a week of summer camp where the only agenda is fun, fun, fun.

“Oh, it’s such a great place,” said Kim, whose daughter is now 17 and has attended camp every summer since her first.

“This is a place where she can be a normal kid, and it gives her an opportunity to do something with her peers. It’s such a blessing for our family.”

CCK is like no other place in Kentucky. Sitting on 168 acres, CCK is a world- class medical camping facility designed specifically for children living with medical challenges who cannot attend a traditional camp.

Courageous kids 3The camp includes a state-of-the-art medical center, a helipad, equestrian center, bowling alley, indoor swimming complex, gymnasium, climbing wall, boating and fishing dock, four camper lodges, dining hall, theater and countless other fun activity areas.

Operating year-round, the Center offers two programs: During the school year, Family Weekend Retreats serve up to 30 families per weekend when the whole family can participate in camp activities together.

“When we spent the family weekend together,” Kim said, “it really improved my comfort level.”

The second program consists of summer camp sessions that serve up to 128 kids ages 7 to 15 per week.

Each camping week is illness specific, allowing campers to live and play with children facing the same physical challenges. One of the byproducts of the week is invaluable positive peer pressure.

“When you get these kids together, they teach each other,” said Roger Murtie, CCK’s President and Executive Director.

“If a 7-year-old is afraid of needles, for instance, friends show him how to do it and his confidence goes off the chart. Same thing with learning how to change your own catheter.

“These kids start blooming.”

That’s the most gratifying part of the job, said Murtie, adding that working at the camp is more of a calling than a profession.

“We can’t cure children of what they have but we can put a smile on their face and give them an experience they can’t have at any other camp.

“For the week they are here, they get the chance to be normal.”

Sophie, along with children from 43 states and 10 foreign countries, count the days until camp begins. She loves the zero-grade entry pool, bowling, making crafts, fishing and canoeing.

Plus, mom and dad know she is safe while having all that fun.

“The doctors and nurses on staff are so capable,” Kim said. “And the young adults who volunteer have a passion for the campers. The same volunteers return year after year and they put their heart into this.”

Along with 30 year-round employees, CCK is staffed by 1,000 unique volunteers – 19 and older – who fill 2,400 volunteer slots.

The camp also hires 70 college interns each summer, who come from 23 different universities and as far away as Colombia, Scotland and Spain. Many are pre-med or education majors.

For seven weeks of the summer, each counselor is assigned to two children. They all live together in four lodges with 32 children and 26 counselors in each lodge in rooms that sleep eight.

Two other weeks of the summer are for non-ambulatory and medically fragile children whose parents stay at the camp. The counselor-child ratio for those camps is 1 to 1.

Amazingly, the camping experience is free to every child. That’s thanks to the woman who started CCK as a non-profit enterprise – the late Betty Turner Campbell.

Her father Cal founded the Dollar General company and after Mrs. Campbell visited a similar camp in Florida, she donated $20 million to launch a camp that would serve the children of Kentucky and Tennessee.

CCK is debt free and is funded by proceeds of Mrs. Campbell’s estate and donations from individuals, businesses, foundations, health partners and others with a heart for children who are medically fragile.

Murtie oversees all aspects of CCK and can trace his connection to the camp to – of all things – his military career. A colonel in the Army, he served as aide de camp during Operation Desert Storm in Iraq to General Norman Schwarzkopf.

Ten years later in 2001 when Murtie was set to retire from the Army, he consulted the general. Murtie wanted a letter of recommendation. Instead, he got a new career.

“He asked me to visit a Camp Boggy Creek in Florida and that changed my life,” Murtie said.

The camp for children with disabilities had been started by two of the most unlikely business partners – Schwarzkopf and actor Paul Newman.

But both had a heart for children with disabilities and started the camp.

After one weekend at the camp, Murtie fell in the love with the mission, and the course of his post-military life was set.

When Mrs. Campbell came to visit the camp, Murtie was her guide. She then hired him to help her launch CCK.

Murtie has never looked back. When asked what the camp means to him, Murtie said,

“Do you know the movie ‘The Great Santini’? That was me.”

“The Great Santini” is the account by author Pat Conroy of his relentlessly demanding military father.

“I was a high-strung, type-A person, but the Center has made me a better person,” Murtie said.

“Being around the kids, it didn’t take me long to de-stress. I became more patient, tolerant, compassionate. I’m a kinder, gentler person. The kids bring that out in you.

“This has been a transformational experience for me. There are still way more children we need to serve.

“But because of the work we do here, I sleep better at night.”