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Camp Duncan helps youngsters deal with Tourette
Evanston Review
July 12, 2007

Tourette syndrome made J.P. D'amico an outcast in school. Kids didn't understand that J.P. couldn't help it when he made ear-piercing grunts, his head twitched uncontrollably or his eyeballs vibrated.

Even teachers ridiculed him.

"I was emotionally scarred," said the 16-year-old Oak Park resident. But for one week each summer, J.P. found a haven at YMCA Camp Duncan in Lake County, Illinois.

It's the only specialized summer camp in the Midwest for youth who have Tourette Syndromethe baffling neurological disorder characterized by sudden, involuntary movements and noises called tics. Children come from all over the country.

"This is a community that will not treat them the way society has," Camp Duncan director Kim Kiser said. "We will respect and nurture them."

One day, J.P. was sitting by the swimming pool, alone as usual, when a cute girl came over and started talking to him. They made small talk for a while. Then, to his astonishment, she asked J.P. if he would like to go to a dance with her.

"Every other girl I'd ever known just hated me," he said. "It was a life-changing moment. It's when I realized people will accept you and be willing to get to know you."

Last year, nearly 27,000 young people ages 7 to 15 attended Camp Duncan, near far northwest suburban Ingleside. In addition to regular summer camps, Camp Duncan offers 17 medical camps for kids with conditions such as diabetes, asthma, kidney disease, burns and Tourette.

The Tourette camp is much like Duncan's regular summer camp. Kids swim, do crafts, play basketball and paddle canoes among other typical camp activities. But while they mix with regular campers, the Tourette kids bunk with one another. And most of their counselors also have Tourette.

They discover they're not alone. They make friends. They find out how other kids cope. And they are not ridiculed or disciplined for their tics. One camper repeatedly yelled the F-word in the dining hall. A regular camper would have been punished. But the camper who had Tourette wasn't disciplined, because the actin was part of the disease he couldn't control.

Stress can make tics worse. After trying to suppress tics at school all day, some kids' tics increase when they get home. Suppressing the tics might increase stress, so allowing them to relieve stress by expressing the tics often makes sense.

Kiser invited a reporter to sit in on a group discussion, which had one ground rule: "Tics are fine, but don't talk over anyone."

Every few seconds, someone would grunt, yelp or bark, but no one seemed to notice. They discussed the difference between school and camp. At school, it's easy to get picked on when you're the only one. But there's safety in numbers at Camp Duncan.

Not everyone gets bullied at school. Some kids are pitied and patronized, which can be worse. "It's annoying and creepy," said Andy Jones, 13, of Hendersonville, N.C. "I would rather have my entire school be mean to me."

It costs the YMCA about $1,000 for each of the 37 kids at this year's Tourette camp. Parents pay $495; fund-raising and YMCA subsidies make up the difference.

Tourette kids have more special needs. Many have associated conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder or attention deficit disorder. While Camp Duncan has about 10 regular campers for each counselor, it's only about two Tourette campers per counselor.

J.P. attended Tourette camp for three years, then became a counselor. His tics have markedly subsided, as they do in many young people in their late teens and early 20s. Many campers look up to J.P. as their role model.

At Camp Duncan, Kiser said, "J.P. found his worth."

Camp Duncan Contact:
Rona Roffey, Camp Director
Tammy Welninski, Day Camp Director
Addie Smits, Director of Group Services
Phone: 847-546-8086 Fax: 847-546-3550
E-mail: info@ymcacampduncan.org

Mailing Address:
YMCA Camp Duncan
32405 North Hwy. 12
Ingleside, IL 60041
 

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