Summer camps embrace kids who have survived heart surgery, cancer
Campers at The Edward J. Madden Open Hearts Camp in Great Barrington is a haven for children who have recovered from open-heart surgery.
Photo by The Edward J. Madden Open Hearts Camp
A half-mile stretch along Monument Valley Road in Great Barrington is lined by white post-and-rail fencing that undulates beneath a canopy of sugar maples before revealing a white farmhouse nestled in the valley beneath the shadow of Squaw Peak. This lush and vibrant landscape is home to the Edward J. Madden Open Hearts Camp, established in 1960 as a haven for children ages eight to 16 who have recovered from open-heart surgery.
From this particular vista, with Monument Mountain in the distance, it is easy to feel cocooned in a bit of a haven. “It’s a gorgeous setting,” says the camp’s executive director, David Zaleon. This sense of safety and nurturing contributes to the mission of linking an often isolated group of kids.
Madden, one of the country’s first open-heart surgery patients, and his wife, Leone, gifted their country home and surrounding farmland as a space where young heart patients could enjoy nature, sports, and recreation. The Maddens envisioned a camp accessible to all children, regardless of financial circumstance, and this summer nearly 60 campers from nine states across the Northeast will traverse the winding backroads to reach Monument Valley.
Following months of appearing dormant to passersby, the complex will come to life between June 26 and August 16, when the Madden property becomes a home away from home for children whose diagnoses run the gamut—from the fairly common ASD/VSD (holes in the heart) to single-ventricle anomalies to complete heart transplants. Each survivor has a remarkable story to tell, and they gather each summer to relax, connect, and explore.
“The reality that we see a spectrum of kids is so poignant,” cites Zaleon, who in his 13-year tenure has exposed campers to all there is to do in the Berkshires—from concerts on the lawn at Tanglewood and romps around Chesterwood to exhibits at the Norman Rockwell Museum, as well as bowling and miniature golf. A 300-acre campus gives campers—despite their physical limitations—the ability to explore nature, to wander up into the hills to the low-ropes course, and to connect with the magnificent sense of place.
A new tradition has evolved as this summer marks the third year veteran campers have been invited to return as counselors. Eileen Garcia traveled from Long Island to the Berkshires the summer after her first heart surgery when she was six years old. She went on to spend 11 years as a camper and returned last summer as a 23-year-old counselor—scar and all— embodying a story of hope for the young campers with whom she would spend her summer.
“Madden is probably more home to me than my regular home,” says Garcia, recollecting how the fresh air and the freedom combined to create a place where she could truly be herself. Born with second-degree heart block, a condition ultimately requiring a pacemaker, Garcia found her return “an extremely humbling experience.” She sees her younger self in the little campers, but feels a real connection with the 15- and 16-year-old girls.
Zaleon credits the focused conversations between campers as being where the real healing takes place. “There is probably no one who can better understand the physical and emotional weight that these children have had to carry than another child who has endured similar realities,” he says.
The YMCA Berkshire Outdoor Center boasts a similar camp experience in Becket. Camp Casco, a free sleep-away summer camp for childhood-cancer patients and survivors ages seven to 17, will welcome 28 campers to its Chimney Corners campus from August 22-27. The facility is all-inclusive, boasting handicap-accessibility for children with mobility challenges, and offers a myriad of activities, from indoor rock climbing to canoeing. Camp Casco’s “Med Shed,” sponsored this year by New England BioLabs, is staffed by volunteer medical professionals who can provide a range of medical needs for campers’ well-being, from first-aid to administering medications.
CEO Erin Fletcher attributes Casco’s experience to allowing “every camper the level of peer support they crave in a low-pressure environment.” This comes via a sense of normalcy and reassurance that everyone present at camp understands their struggle. For some, it means participating in an optional “circle time” activity, where those who would like to speak specifically about their medical experiences are able to. For all, it is the unspoken bond they share and the goals of a traditional camp experience: building character, experiencing independence, and trying new things.