Campers with spina bifida come together for week of fun

On a humid and rainy summer morning, a distinctive New Orleans sound was emanating from the cafeteria at St. Martin’s Episcopal School, in Metairie.

Three men dressed in traditional Mardi Gras Indian costumes sang and danced to the beat of drums and tambourines. Surrounding them were more than 100 youngsters, many of whom had their faces meticulously and colorfully painted while others were wearing masks they made that shimmered with glitter in the traditional Carnival colors of purple, green and gold.

Held on July 23, the event was part of a weeklong summer program called Camp Friendship sponsored by Spina Bifida of Greater New Orleans.

The 29th annual event is open to children, ages 3 to 22, from throughout Louisiana who have spina bifida. The free camp was held at Paradise Manor in River Ridge, with the July 23 program held as an off-campus field trip at St. Martin’s.

This year, 48 youngsters with spina bifida were matched with area high school students who served as trained volunteers, working one-on-one with the campers and participating in programs and activities such as arts and crafts, swimming and music.

“This was my son’s first year at the camp,” said LaPlace resident Gwenn Marelo, whose son, Brian, is 4. “He loved every minute of it. Not only has Brian enjoyed all the activities but he’s also enjoyed the social interaction of being around kids who are like him, kids who also have spina bifida.”

“I liked when we went swimming,” Brian added. “And I liked coloring, too. My favorite color is red.”

According to the Spina Bifida Association, spina bifida occurs when a baby is in the womb and the spinal column does not close all of the way. Spina bifida literally means “split spine.” And although the spinal opening can be surgically repaired after birth, the nerve damage is permanent, resulting in varying degrees of paralysis of the lower limbs.

Cindy Barrios is Camp Friendship’s director, and Julie Johnston serves as the camp’s outreach coordinator.

“I have been here the last 29 years, often as the director of the camp and always on the board of SBGNO,” said Barrios, a pediatric physical therapist. “In the early years, children often had a difficult time finding summer day camps because of the medical issues. Organizations like ours are dedicated to meeting the needs of families from the moment they know they are having a baby with spina bifida. And in addition to Camp Friendship, we also have other programs such as social outings, family picnics and parent conferences.”

“This camp provides an avenue for families and children to connect with others living this life,” added Johnston, whose 21-year-old son, Zac, has spina bifida. “We don’t want families to feel like they are alone. And the kids at Camp Friendship get a chance to connect with other kids who are dealing with the same kinds of issues.”

It cost about $20,000 to hold the camp, and Johnston said there are “several annual fundraising events sponsored by SBGNO and community groups” held throughout the year to help pay for the camp.

Laura Smith and Tabitha Miller were two artists face painting the campers and the staff of Camp Friendship.

“This was my first time here, and it was the best event,” Miller said. “The smiles of the kids captured my heart.”

Austin Campbell, a junior at Holy Cross High School in New Orleans, is a first-time volunteer counselor.

“This has been a lot of fun for me,” said Campbell, of River Ridge. “I’ve enjoyed being a counselor and helping in whatever way I can. I hope I have made a difference in some way because I know being with these kids has made a difference in my life.”

Johnston said many of the counselors “have as much fun as the campers.”

“And many of our counselors have gone on into areas of medicine, teaching, allied health fields and advocacy law because of the time spent at Camp Friendship,” she said.

“Our counselors are invaluable,” Barrios added. “They love the children, and I hope they continue to develop an appreciation for their own health and a respect for people with disabilities.”

Samantha Babin, of River Ridge, has been a Camp Friendship volunteer counselor for three years.

“I love this camp,” said Babin, a junior at St. Mary’s Dominican High School in New Orleans. “I feel like I am doing something good and giving something back by helping and working with the kids.”

Herb Gibson, the manager of The Mardi Gras Indian Show, said the performance at Camp Friendship is just one of many events the group participates in throughout the year.

“We do a lot of conventions and corporate events, but we also perform at special programs such as this one,” Gibson said. “We want to share the history, culture and tradition of Mardi Gras Indians. And to share it with these kids at this camp is really special for us.”