A Camp With A Heart
● By Aimee Cormier
By Scott Brazda • Photos submitted by Camp Bon Coeur
“What does ‘Camp Bon Coeur’ mean?” smiles Ben Smith. “That’s a loaded question.”
Meaning, the answer can come from so many different directions.
The camp director pauses. “Well, literally, ‘Camp Bon Coeur’ means ‘good heart.’”
There’s sort of a contradiction operating here, because for nine days each and every summer, most of the hearts in play at Camp Bon Coeur are not necessarily good...at least not in a physical sense. But the true mission of Camp Bon Coeur is to touch upon and build upon the good spirits resting within the physically challenged hearts of the 45 campers in attendance.
“Camp Bon Coeur started in 1985 to provide a safe, supportive and, above all, fun summer camp for kids with heart defects,” explains executive director Susannah Craig, who’s been with the nonprofit since 1999. “Even 30 years ago, Lafayette General and the local Men at Hearts chapter had the foresight to come up with this camp because there was no place for kids with heart defects to go and just be kids.”
At the time, Camp Bon Coeur was only the second heart camp in the country, and there is still only a handful in the U.S. The data stressed the need for such a facility back then, and continues to do so right now. “Heart defects are the number one birth defects in the world, and are the number one cause of non-accidental deaths in children,” says Craig. “Plus, there are twice as many kids with heart defects as there are with all forms of childhood cancer.”
For the first 11 years, Camp Bon Coeur set up its summer shop on the campus of the Academy of the Sacred Heart in Grand Coteau; it has since moved to the Acadian Baptist Center near Eunice. What happens for a week-and-a-half during the last week of July is just what you would see at almost every other camp, with activities like archery, swimming, art and horseback riding.
It’s right around this point that you might ask, “But wait. Isn’t this a camp for kids with heart defects?” That it is. But the environment created by Craig, Smith and the other 20 volunteers is a balance between fun and safety as the joie de vivre experienced is done all under the watchful eyes of the five nurses and other onsite medical staff. When Lafayette’s Andrea Cohen first brought her son, Avery, to Camp three years ago, the Camp’s staff helped al,leviate her anxieties about leaving Avery.
“It was tearful letting him go and dropping him off,” recalls Cohen. “He was only four days old when he had his first heart surgery, and so, yes, in the years that followed we were a bit nervous and did a bit of hovering, always being mindful of potential complications. But the wonderful staff, all of them are so well-trained and ready for anything that might come up, made us feel so reassured.” Plus, Avery quickly acclimated to life at Camp Bon Coeur. “Shortly after I drove away, the staff sent me a picture of him at the pool, all smiles. I knew he was in good hands.”
Born with aortic valve stenosis, essentially a narrowing of heart valves and thus a restriction of blood flow, Avery Cohen, now 12, can’t imagine a life without camp. Even though the aforementioned staff members can be found at every corner...the cafeteria, the pool, the hallways. “It’s so exciting! It’s like a ‘prison of fun,’” laughs Avery. “The staff is there to keep an eye on you, but they’re so cool, like awesome big brothers and sisters. And then I’m with all these other kids, and we’ve got everything in common. It’s really fun knowing there are people like you and that you’re not alone.”
The realization that you’re not alone in the realm of heart defects is a big reason for the success of Camp Bon Coeur, and that village of support applies to both campers and their families. Allie Barbay was born with Shone’s Complex and had open heart surgery at the age of 10; she first attended Camp Bon Coeur when she was 13. “I didn’t want to stay,” chuckles Barbay, “but my dad promised to come get me if I would just try it out for three days.”
Barbay ended up trying out Camp for the next 15 years, graduating from camper to volunteer.
Now 28 years old and about to be married, she’s glad she got out of her father’s car and tested her physical boundaries. “Having a heart defect is something you deal with your entire life; you’re never cured. But becoming a part of Camp Bon Coeur showed me I was in a place where my heart defect was secondary to the person I was.”
Campers from across the country, sometimes even from other countries, continue to make Camp Bon Coeur a ‘must’ on their summer ‘to-do’ lists. First-time campers aren’t charged a penny, and for subsequent years the fee to attend is about $1,500. Craig and Smith have plenty of ways to help those who may struggle to meet the attendance fee. “I’m never going to turn a child away,” says Craig.
The average number of campers is about 45, and Craig never wants to exceed 50. “What makes our camp so special is the kids aren’t a number, they’re a name. Having a manageable group of attendees allows us to keep the ‘family feeling,’ and greet kids with things like, ‘Man, you’ve grown 10 inches since last summer.’ As much as we’d like to grow, we don’t want to lose that feeling.”
Camp Bon Coeur has many best-kept secrets. Avery Cohen would say it’s how he and some friends traditionally find a way to ‘borrow’ ice cream from the staff parties. But Susannah Craig wishes people knew that Camp Bon Coeur actually operates year-round, not necessarily as a camp, but as a provider of resources and support for kids with heart defects 365 days a year. “We want families to call us, and we want people to know how prevalent heart defects are. People don’t understand the trials these kids go through until they visit camp and see the scars.”
Working at Camp Bon Coeur can at times be an emotional rollercoaster, particularly for a newcomer. “The very first camper I came across,” remembers Smith, “was blue. Literally had blue skin because of his condition. It was shocking, eye-opening, scary – bunch of different emotions.”
But Smith has stuck around for almost a decade because, as he says, he sees the need. “They come to camp shy, they come with low confidence. So many of our kids have been told ‘you can’t’ or ‘you shouldn’t’ because of their heart defects. But nine days later, they leave camp with tons of confidence and higher self-esteem. They leave knowing... they can.”
In the summer of 2015, it will be business as usual at Camp Bon Coeur: More campers, more confidence-building, more familial support. But perhaps most importantly will be the ongoing realization that the words “good heart” or “Camp Bon Coeur” are all-encompassing and reflect the love and attention given by a village of neighbors to kids who just want to be treated like, well, kids.
“It’s such a gift to these children who have been through so much,” surmises Andrea Cohen. “Camp impacts their lives in such wonderful ways, and we parents appreciate the staff in ways beyond words.”
Allie Barbay agrees, adding that her 15 years (and counting) with Camp Bon Coeur, has led to self-acceptance and deep appreciation of who she really is. “I would be a different person without Camp in my life,” she quickly says. “I cannot imagine my life without it. Camp Bon Coeur made me realize my life is blessed because of my heart defect, not in spite of it.”
“You should really support Camp Bon Coeur,” adds Avery Cohen. “It’s for children like me, children who might feel like they couldn’t fit into society. Then they come to Camp and think ‘this is cool,’ and finally tell themselves... ‘I’m normal.’”