I recently attended the Celiac Sprue Association's annual conference, held this year at the Hyatt Regency Hauppauge on Long Island, New York. In addition to the fantastic group of doctors from the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University (and other great presenters like Mrs. Alaska, Brandy Wendler, RN, MSN) who spoke, there was an Exhibit Hall featuring gluten free food vendors and other businesses serving the Celiac community.
I was particularly glad to meet Jesse Scherer, owner of Camp Eagle Hill in Elizaville, New York (2 hours north of New York CIty in the beautiful Hudson Valley between Poughkeepsie and Albany). Last summer, shortly after one of his 7-year old twins was diagnosed with Celiac Disease, he added a gluten free kitchen and dedicated chef to Camp Eagle Hill in order to accommodate other kids wanting a traditional summer camp experience.
Jesse's parents first started the camp back in 1963, so this is not only his business, but an integral part of his life. When his daughter was diagnosed, one of his first thoughts was how she would be able to safely attend his own camp. Last year was a way for Jesse and his sister, who runs the kitchen and dining room, to determine -- on a small scale -- how to accommodate gluten free campers. After successfully hosting 10 kids requiring gluten free diets last summer, Jesse is ready to expand the gluten free side aspect of the camp as demand continues to grow within the Celiac community.
Years ago, there was just one camp that focused on kids requiring gluten free diets...Camp Celiac in North Scituate, Rhode Island (where my own son has attended for the past two years as a camper and I've volunteered as a parent counselor). Fortunately, there are now many more camps -- all around the country -- that have done the work necessary (either with a dedicated kitchen or separate area of the kitchen) to safely accommodate gluten free kids looking to have the same fun summer experience as their friends. (We list camps around the country serving kids requiring GF diets on our website, GlutenFreeTravelSite. Please let us know if you are aware of any others so we can add them to our list.)
Given the demand -- and waiting lists -- for many of these camps, it's great to hear of this new option, especially in the greater New York area, which is currently not served by another GF-friendly camp. Camp Eagle Hill can accommodate about 250 campers, and it offers a very wide range of activities for kids aged 6-16. The longer length of their sessions (you can choose 2-week, 3-week, 4-week, or 7-week camps) allows instructors to work with kids on skill development in areas that match their interests: sports, theatre, photography, gymnastics, dance, art, horseback riding, woodworking, guitar, swimming, mountain biking, video production, and a wide variety of other programs.
The "focus" of the camper's expereince isn't on living with Celiac; rather, the camp just allows kids to be kids and enjoy a trational overnight summer camp experience without worrying about the food. Efforts are made to mirror the "regular" menu offerings with a similar, if not identical, option for the gluten free campers. Jesse and his team have learned that it's often possible to make many of the meals gluten free for ALL the campers (things like tacos or chicken, for example).
Clearly, the benefits are worth the extra effort when it comes to serving gluten free kids. And it usually takes a parent of a child with Celiac to appreciate the rewards. As Jesse said, "When the Celiac campers see kids in larger numbers that have gone through the same thing...that they're not alone in the world...not the only child being served the gluten free food...it's very special."
I couldn't agree more. Attending Camp Celiac was the first time my own son had been around other kids with Celiac Disease, and it literally brought tears to my eyes knowing he was developing a special bond with kids who face the same day-to-day challenges he faces regarding food, meals, class parties, and dining out.
Jesse also sees his camp as a great place for older kids and young adults to work while in high school and college. Unlike other camps where they'd struggle to find safe menu choices, Camp Eagle Hill can provide its counselors and other employees -- along with the campers -- safe food while working for the summer.
Jesse takes his job looking after his gluten free campers very seriously. When possible, he plans a home visit to meet the kids (and parents) who are considering Camp Eagle Hill so that he can set them at ease about the food served and answer any questions they may have. There is no extra charge for gluten free meals, something he feels strongly about since gluten free diners are often charged extra surcharges for things like gluten free pasta at restaurants.
Camp Eagle Hill currently has discounted Early Registration Rates for Summer 2013 open until October 31. Jesse tells me that the camp does tend to fill up by mid-February -- at least in certain age groups. You can find all the information you need on the Camp Eagle Hill website or by calling 914-725-4876 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.