Widening the circle
AAD’s Camp Discovery is looking to make this meaningful opportunity accessible to even more kids and volunteers in the years to come
By Amy Freed Stalzer, Contributing Writer, November 1, 2022
For nearly 30 years, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) has offered a camp program for children with skin conditions that both campers and volunteers say is nothing less than life changing.
Camp Discovery offers children from 8-16 years old with chronic, significant skin disorders like atopic dermatitis, alopecia areata, ichthyosis, and epidermolysis bullosa the opportunity to experience camp and support each other in a setting of acceptance, love, and fun. Kids who attend camp get a safe and secure environment, a confidence-building opportunity, and a sense of belonging with their peers they might find nowhere else.
When founded in 1993 as the brainchild of past Academy President Mark Dahl, MD, FAAD, Camp Discovery was offered to about 50 kids at a single campsite in Crosslake, Minnesota, and two years later, the first branch camp was established in Millville, Pennsylvania. Today, Camp Discovery offers about 300 kids per year the opportunity to experience a week of summer camp at five locations nationwide, with additional campsites in Andover, Connecticut and Burton, Texas.
While attending Camp Discovery, kids are under the expert care of the more than 200 volunteer dermatologists, nurses, physician assistants, and other medical professionals who dedicate their time to the camp annually. Every year, more than 50 AAD members volunteer their time to be part of the medical team, and more than 25 AAD members have volunteered at the camp for more than 10 years.
Remarkably, all camper and volunteer expenses are covered by donations, including both registration and travel fees. In the camp’s early days, bake sales were a primary means of raising money, but now the Academy channels its fundraising efforts through its Corporate Relations and Individual Giving Committees, which identify industry partners and individual donors to generate financial support for the camp.
By ensuring the camp is entirely free of charge for campers, AAD makes it more accessible to children who might not otherwise be able to afford it and is able to benefit families of diverse backgrounds and financial status, regardless of where they live.
All told, more than 6,000 children have experienced Camp Discovery since its founding. Having come so far, AAD’s leadership is now exploring where Camp Discovery should go next, and how to make this unique camp opportunity available to even more kids.
Benefits to campers
Each year, kids at Camp Discovery experience typical camp activities such as fishing, swimming, archery, horseback riding, and nature trails in a non-judgmental environment. “It is often one of the first places where a child with alopecia areata, ichthyosis, or epidermolysis bullosa will meet someone else with their same skin condition,” said Keith Morley, MD, FAAD, who has volunteered with Camp Discovery since 2012 and referred many patients to camp over the years.
“Camp Discovery is never overtly focused on the skin conditions though. It really is just a typical summer camp with fun activities where the child can truly be themselves in a supportive environment,” said Dr. Morley.
After hearing over the years what a transformational experience Camp Discovery is, Academy President Mark Kaufmann, MD, FAAD, experienced the camp himself for the first time this summer, and “it was everything I expected and then some,” he said.
“It’s a magical thing to be able to see kids with skin disease — who tend to have lower self-esteem than a lot of people and fear of going out in public and being part of a regular camp — be able to go somewhere where no one is judged for the way their skin looks,” Dr. Kaufmann said. “It was really quite something to watch.”
This “acceptance without any stipulations” is one of the aspects of the camp that kids value most, said Howard Pride, MD, FAAD, a volunteer with the camp since 1994. For example, he noted that when kids have severe blisters that require an hour-long dressing change every day or have to go to school without any hair on their head, they welcome the chance to gather with other kids who are going through the exact same challenges as them.
“I often recommend camp to my patients starting around eight to nine years of age who would benefit from meeting other children with similar conditions or just skin conditions overall, to know that they are not different and that they can be themselves in a safe setting.”
“Regardless of how they look or how their skin might appear, or how much care they have to take, they are unquestionably accepted,” Dr. Pride said.
Along with acceptance, Camp Discovery also offers children a sense of community and emotional safety that brings more than 80% of campers back from year to year.
“I often recommend camp to my patients starting around eight to nine years of age who would benefit from meeting other children with similar conditions or just skin conditions overall, to know that they are not different and that they can be themselves in a safe setting,” said Harper Price, MD, FAAD. “I have seen camp build confidence in my patients, who develop new and continued friendships, and come back and share stories with me that illustrate the huge impact that this program has had on their personal growth and self-esteem.”
“My first patient that I referred had severe eczema, which she was pretty self-conscious about,” said Dr. Morley. “I was able to see her at several camp-wide events the first year she attended. It was amazing to see her confidence grow every day she was there as well as how excited she was to return to camp each year afterwards.”
Campers themselves have shared the positive impact that Camp Discovery has had on them, sharing their delight that “these other kids, they get it!” and “at camp, it’s normal to be different!” The AAD publishes many inspiring anecdotes from campers told in their own words.
Benefits to the medical community
Camp Discovery is equipped to handle daily medical care regimens and medical emergencies for campers, but it relies on its volunteers to provide these essential services.
Dr. Pride describes Camp Discovery as a great outlet for the dermatologic community. “A doctor who never sets foot on camp can vicariously benefit from it by referring a patient to camp and having that for the patients — to enhance both of their lives through that referral,” he said.
However, Dr. Pride added that “without exception, the person who comes to camp and says, ‘I will do whatever you need me to,’ is always the person who gets the most out of it.”
Board-certified dermatologists, dermatology residents, and medical students interested in dermatology can apply for any of the week-long volunteer positions at any of the Camp Discovery locations, including roles as medical staff, counselors, and activity staff.
Residents often serve the camp as physician volunteers who are assigned as counselors to a specific age group. These counselors also provide support to the camp’s medical director and nurse in treating camper skin issues as needed, such as if a child needs frequent bandaging.
Dr. Kaufmann feels so strongly about the importance of Camp Discovery that the main initiative of his Academy presidency is to expand the camp program. He wants to ensure that more dermatology residents have the opportunity to experience the camp firsthand during their residencies.
“The physician volunteers who go all get a tremendous amount out of it,” said Dr. Kaufmann. “I sent one resident from one of our programs who continues to send me emails about how much it’s changed his outlook on patient care.”
Even some medical directors have reported that after volunteering at Camp Discovery and witnessing how campers live with their skin conditions for a week, they’ve even changed the way they prescribe to align with that illuminating “real-world” experience.
Dr. Price first volunteered at Camp Discovery as a resident, and she believes the experience had a huge impact on her career choice as a pediatric dermatologist. “My first summer as a camp counselor was amazing,” she said.
“I was also able to participate in camp working in the medical shed the following summer, privileged to attend camp in a different way, helping with the medical care of complex dermatology conditions in the kids that attended camp,” she continued. “I was helping with bathing and dressing changes for kids with epidermolysis bullosa and ichthyosis, for example. Instead of being a camp counselor and living in a cabin, I resided in the medical shed and was ‘on call’ for any skin emergencies.”
Dr. Price concluded that in a field like pediatric dermatology, which has critical challenges in filling the talent pipeline, it is experiences like those found at Camp Discovery that may inspire a trainee to enter the field of pediatric dermatology. She urges practicing dermatologists to encourage their trainees, “whether that be medical students, residents, or fellows, to volunteer at camp and experience this amazing program for themselves.”
What’s next for Camp Discovery
Upon assuming the presidency of the Academy in March, Dr. Kaufmann established a Camp Discovery Ad Hoc Task Force to evaluate and make recommendations on the future of the program. The group’s discussions are just getting started in advance of the camp’s 30th anniversary next year.
As a member of the task force, Dr. Pride said Camp Discovery is already a “fantastic” product, so the challenge for task force members is to create a plan that builds upon the camp’s success to make it even better.
“We’ve been incredibly blessed over the past few decades to have had something we’ve been able to offer children that’s of really high quality and of immense benefit,” he said. “We’re now in a position of having a great product that we can think through and say, ‘How can we make it available to a larger number of children and people who can benefit from this?’”
When it comes to envisioning how the camp will evolve in the coming years, “everything is on the table — anything from more campsites to different seasons to lengthening sessions,” Dr. Kaufmann said.
“We’ve been exploring the options of expansion: Is it adding another five camps or is it to have shorter camp periods, like a long weekend during the winter to get together?” he continued. “It’s not enough to add capacity; you want to be able to increase capacity while ensuring the same quality of experience that these kids are already having.”
Making the camp more accessible to families may also involve revisiting the camp’s existing referral system and marketing. “There’s a huge number of people who would benefit from this camp who don’t even know it exists,” Dr. Price said. “How do you reach these people who have significant skin conditions who you know would benefit from meeting someone with the exact same thing they have, and get the word out so they know about it? That will be part of the charge of the task force.”
How to get involved
Dermatologists, pediatricians, nurses, residents, and other medical professionals who want to get involved in supporting the success of Camp Discovery will find there are many ways to do so, from referring children to the camp, to volunteering their time, to making donations and hosting fundraisers.
The AAD encourages members and the wider medical community to consider the following ways to get involved and help ensure the medical needs of campers are met:
Refer a child – Camp Discovery requires every camper to be referred by a dermatologist. Either the referring dermatologist or the child’s parent/guardian may download the camper referral form on the AAD website.
Volunteer – Medical professionals can give a week of their time as cabin counselors or medical staff, with all costs covered by the AAD.
Make a donation – Donations help to pay for the travel expenses of campers and volunteer staff, meals for the campers, dressings and other durable medical equipment that campers may not have brought with them, and arts, crafts, and supplies for activities.
Host a fundraising event – Create or sponsor a fundraiser to benefit Camp Discovery, whether a 5K, Bingo Night, or other creative community-building event.
This #GivingTuesday, donate to Camp Discovery!
On Nov. 29, 2022, you can benefit kids with chronic skin conditions by making a donation on the AAD website.