March 25th, 2017
Tribute to Camp Amigo Volunteers and Campers – By Natalie deLeon; photos by Natalie deLeon and Joe Castanedo
Burton, Texas- Camp Amigo, a project of Austin Smiles – The Austin Plastic Surgery Foundation, is a program that brings together patients in the Craniofacial and Reconstructive Plastic Surgery Center at Dell Children’s Medical Center and volunteers with both medical and non-medical backgrounds. Located at Camp for All in Burton, Texas, Camp Amigo is a unique camping experience for one weekend each year that gives young people born with cleft lip/palate the chance to be themselves, make friends, and have a great time with peers. Kids get to be themselves without boundaries, limitations, or judgment. Camp Amigo counselors and campers motivate each other to step outside of their comfort zones, and every year many a camper and counselor alike say, “I can’t wait to come back next year!”
2017 marks the six-year anniversary of Camp Amigo and many campers have come every year consecutively because of the friends they make and the fun activities they only get to do once a year. One young lady, Cristina, has come each year since Camp Amigo began at the age of eight. Now 14, Cristina talks about the continuous friendships she has made throughout her years at camp, like with Wendy, who she met three years ago. Wendy and Cristina are inseparable at camp, knowing they only have one weekend each year to catch up in person.
When on the bus on their way to camp, these young people make more new friends and in a flash, they bond over their interests but also over what sets them apart. All the kids have a little scar on their lip from a surgery most don’t even remember having, and some may need more surgeries to help them live a healthy life.
Over the course of the camp they talk about the “mean kids” who don’t understand why they are different and make fun of them anyway. Camp Amigo lets these kids know they are not alone and there are others like them facing the same struggles. Early connections on the bus quickly turn into friendships through fun activities like rock climbing, where one camper may be too scared to go all the way up but they motivate each other to push past the fear and keep going. Cristina remarks, “Everyone is supportive and it is a fun safe environment.” And, if you ask the counselors why they come out every year to volunteer, you will hear the same theme: “We do it for the kids. You can see how happy they are to be here and how much fun they are having!”
The atmosphere at Camp Amigo is peaceful with the sun bursting through tall oak trees and over the hills. One cannot help but feel they are in a safe place where personality is set free, where no one is judged on appearance, where laughter is loud, and life-long friends are made. Camp Amigo is just another year away, and we can’t wait!