Last month I attended Camp Celiac in North Scituate, Rhode Island, along with my 9-year-old Celiac son Ryan. This was the second year we've both attended -- I a "parent counselor" and my son as a camper. Campers range in age from 8 to 16 (that's when they "age out").
As a Parent Counselor AND parent of a Celiac camper, I've had the priviledge of enjoying a unique perspective of the camp experience, and I'd like to share my thoughts on this camp -- and others like it.
Although Camp Celiac was the first camp geared to gluten free kids -- and is still the largest -- there have been other, similar camps that have sprung up over the years (some cater to kids with other allergies/food intolerances as well). You'll find a list of those camps on a new page of our website, GlutenFreeTravelSite, devoted to Gluten Free Camps. (Just note that this PAST summer's dates are still listed, since the camps haven't posted their dates for Summer 2013 yet.)
Most of these camps, like Camp Celiac, are just "ordinary camps" (i.e. they focus on fun outdoor activities and nature, not discussions about a gluten free lifestyle). The key is that -- at least with Camp Celiac -- they scrub down the kitchen before the GF campers' arrival. For the entire week, everything is GF, so there is NO chance of cross contamination. The directors of Camp Celiac have trained the chef and his kitchen staff over the years -- and they do an amazing job preparing the gluten free meals (perfect "al dente" pasta, wonderful rolls, delicious pancakes...). Much of the food is donated by top gluten free food companies, which have developed a close relationship with the program over the years. Other Celiac/GF camps have similar arrangements (making the kitchen entirely GF for a week), while others are able to safely accommodate GF campers alongside non-GF campers.
I can only speak from our own personal experience at this one particular camp, but the "focus" of Camp Celiac is just to "let kids be kids" and enjoy a "right of passage" of childhood that they might not otherwise be able to participate in, due to dietary restrictions. They don't focus on Celiac or have group discussions about their dietary restrictions (beyond what they choose to do as they're conversing at meal time, when the conversation invariably turns to diet/food issues!). It is heart-warming to see the kids relax, knowing EVERYTHING is safe for them to eat.
Throughout the week, they participate in "team building" exercises in small groups, water activities, fishing, canoeing, carnivals, crafts, nature hikes, competitions, and more. The staff at this particular camp (Camp Aldersgate) leads the activities. The parent counselors are basically there to be the "parents away from home," to ensure kids are following the rules, aren't too homesick, get where they need to be throughout the day, and have fun!
If you're interested in an experience like this for your child and you are able to take the time to volunteer, they are always looking for parent counselors. They prefer not to put you with your own child, and of course male counselors are in charge of the boys, and female counselors bunk with the girls. So for the past two years I've been assigned to a cabin with middle school girls, while my son has been with the younger group of boys. It's an ideal situation, because you can keep an eye on your child from afar while still letting him or her be "on their own," with much less chance of homesickness!
I saw a lot of the same campers this year as I did last year...Camp Celiac has an amazing rate of "repeat campers." There are also many who have been coming every year since age 8. When they "age out" at 16, they are, frankly, quite devastated. They have made lifelong friends, and with the emergence of Facebook, etc, over the past few years, they are able to keep in touch more closely throughout the year.
But what I think is most valuable and special for so many of the kids is that -- for the first time in many of their lives (like with my own son), they meet other kids "just like them." They get to hang out with other kids who "get it" and understand what they go through with their dietary restrictions on a day to day basis. And at the end of the day, they're just kids having fun at camp -- finally getting to experience this rite of passage of childhood just like so many of their other friends from home.
Like Camp Celiac, there are now many other camps all over the country that have made it their mission to provide a safe camp experience for gluten free kids. Some are day camps while others are overnight camps. Many have a dedicated gluten free kitchen for the week, while others designate a special area of the kitchen for preparing food for their gluten free campers. Take a look at our listing to see if there's something in your area. If not, it's worth considering planning a family "road trip" to a camp further away. I met many campers whose families spent time with local relatives or did their own mini vacation while they attended Camp Celiac for the 5 days.
One final note: these camps tend to book up VERY quickly, so it's never too early to start thinking about it. Although NEXT summer's dates for the camps aren't published yet, continue to check back each month, as registration begins as early as February for some of the more popular camps.