Open Hearts Camp helps kids recovering from transplants find friends

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Photo Gallery | Madden Open Hearts Camp in Great Barrington

GREAT BARRINGTON — Bryce is a soft-spoken nine-year-old from New Jersey. Big Mets fan.

About a week ago, Bryce was plunked down at a camp on Monument Valley Road. He was, by his own admission, more than a little nervous.

"I was kind of scared," he said in a recent interview."I didn't know anybody and it was my first time away from home."

There was another reason. Like all the youngsters at the Edward J. Madden Open Hearts Camp, Bryce has had open heart surgery.

The Madden Camp is one of perhaps a dozen camps around the world for children who have had and recovered from open heart surgery or transplants, according to executive director David Zaleon. And the Madden camp is the only such camp in New England.

That first night, Bryce found he made friends pretty easily. In part because he's a pretty affable kid. But also in part because, as he put it, "we were all the same."

That's big.

"Nobody picks on you," said Bayla, a 12-year-old from Palmer. "They get what you're going through. So do the counsellors. You can just have a good time. Everyone is so nice."

Camp officials have asked The Eagle to identify the children by just their first names.

Bayla is a relative veteran. She's spent three summers at the Madden Camp. She loves coming here, she said.

Sometimes, Bayla said, the kids talk among themselves about their heart conditions. Some have had relatively minor procedures (although it's difficult to characterize heart surgery as a "minor procedure") some have had transplants. But it's all good, said Bayla.

"There are times when we bring it up to each other," she said. "It's so good to know that you're not alone. There are other kids in the world with these problems."

The camp is named after the late Edward Madden, one of the first heart patients in the country. In 1960, Madden and his wife converted their home, located on 300 acres north of the town center, into a camp for children dealing with the same issues Edward Madden had to face.

The camp, according to Zaleon, is unique in several ways. The ratio of counsellors to students is 1-2. There is a registered nurse on the premises at all times. Counsellors are trained in CPR.

The cabins are all air-conditioned, to ensure that the campers aren't exposed to temperature extremes.

"You won't find a better air-conditioned camp anywhere," said Zaleon.

The activities, he said, are deliberately slower paced to enable everyone to keep up. There is a pool on the site in which to cool off.

The camp serves children from 8 to 16 years old. But, said Zaleon, they are separated by age with each group staying for about two weeks., The ages are 8-10, 11-12, 13-14 and 15-16. There are separate dormitories for boys and girls.

Tuition is $250 for two-week stay, he said. There are scholarships available. And, said Zaleon, the camp is always looking for sponsors, because almost 60 percent of the campers get some kind of financial assistance.

"It's our goal to never turn anyone away," he said.

The activities are typical camp-type activities: games, some sports, swimming in the pool, all monitored carefully by the counsellors and staff, said Zaleon.

In fact, Zaleon interrupted the interview a few times as he kept an eye on this child or that.

"Sorry," he said after one stop. "I just want to make sure things are okay."

Things usually are. Some of the counsellors, like Laura Owens, 21 of Maryland, are former campers. That helps, she said.

"They know I've been there," said Owens. "I tell them I've had the surgeries."

Owens was a camper or six years. She is passionate about ensuring the campers have a good experience.

"I had such a great time here," she said. "I want them to have the same experience I did."

Why, she is asked, did you have such a good time?

"Well, all you do is play games and swim," she said with a laugh. "How can that not be fun?"

Owens is in college now. Her plan is to eventually work with children with disabilities.

"Being here was good for me," she said. "It makes you feel better about yourself. It makes you feel better about life."

To learn more about, or donate to, the Madden Open Hearts Camp, go to www.openheartscamp.org.

Contact Derek Gentile at 413-496-6251.


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