Zebra Crossings, AYF offer camp experiences for children with chronic health issues

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For almost 100 years, the American Youth Foundation has built and relied upon a community of life-giving partners to ensure the growth and success of our year-round programs at both Miniwanca and Merrowvista. While many of these partnerships span from generation to generation within a single family, others exist between our programs and other youth development organizations.

We depend upon these symbiotic relationships, founded in shared values and similar core commitments, to best serve youth in every phase of their distinctive development. Working together enables us to positively impact a greater number of lives—ultimately, helping us to reach and shape more diverse groups of youth into their own best selves. Collaborating in community with our network of kindred spirits and allies allows the American Youth Foundation mission to flourish.

Since 2011, Camp Merrowvista has walked hand in hand with Zebra Crossings.  Just as every child has their own unique finger prints, personalities and needs, no two zebras have the same coat of stripes. Zebra Crossings tailors safe experiential programs for chronically ill children. Their programs and camps serve youth, with a variety of chronic medical conditions which include (but are not limited to):  asthma, autoimmune disorders, diabetes, epilepsy, heart defects, hemophilia, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, severe allergies and skin conditions. Every Zebra Crossings program is supervised by medical professionals who acknowledge the needs of each beautifully unique child.

For the past eight years, Zebra Crossings’s Camp Blue Sky has offered inspiring weekend retreats at Merrowvista in the spring before summer programs fill the camp property. Camp Blue Sky invites families and their children with Down syndrome to create and celebrate community with other families who are journeying through life with similar experiences and challenges. A grateful Zebra Crossings Camp Blue Sky parent reflects, “It is a weekend to connect with people who get you, get your situation, and can offer empathy and encouragement.”

Known for their patterned black and white coats, zebras stick out on their own. Yet observed in groups, they are called dazzles — for the visual impact created by their solidarity — zebras blend together. These highly social herd animals create safety and natural camouflage for themselves when traveling in community.  Much like zebras in a dazzle, a Zebra Crossings camper shared, “I really like Camp Spinnaker because you get to meet other kids with asthma, and you don’t feel, well… lonely. Because sometimes it can be hard to make friends when you have asthma.”

Since 2014, Zebra Crossings has also worked in partnership with Camp Merrowvista to host Camp Spinnaker, a one-week overnight program for children ages 8 to 12 with asthma. In addition to experiencing the magic of the Merrowvista property, the Camp Spinnaker campers partake in an extensive asthma education program to equip and empower them to manage their own health.

“I can control my asthma better and take responsibility for my medications to prevent flair up,” says a camper, age 12.

“My daughter went from not wanting to do anything active to participating in dance, track, soccer, racing and swimming and being able to keep up with her peers better. I credit Zebra Crossings’ Camp Spinnaker for giving her the motivation to try new things and confidence that her asthma is just a part of her, but it does not define her,” says a Zebra Crossings camper parent.

Zebra Crossings Founder and Executive Director Astrid Wielans shares that the partnership with the American Youth Foundation works because, “Zebra Crossings program’s core values are play, independence, achievement, wellness and community.”  Astrid’s ties to the AYF run deep, as she was a longtime staff member and Director at Merrowvista. As she has developed this powerful community, she has carried forward the mission of AYF with the goal to reach even more youth.

She explains, “It comes back to the AYF concept of ‘your own best self,’ which is such a simple, yet powerful message. In our community, every child may manage a different chronic medical condition, which poses different challenges every day or week. Just like the AYF, we encourage our participants to focus on inclusion, kindness, and not comparing yourself with others. Participants are encouraged to try new experiences and discover what they are capable of achieving.”

In 2019, Zebra Crossings hosted more than 179 participants, from 11 states, involved in 37 program days, while providing onsite medical supervision and activities as individual as each camper’s needs and abilities.

We are honored to call Zebra Crossings our partner. We look forward to the continued growth of their programs — and ours — as we continue our journeys together in this dazzle that is our partnership.

This article originally appeared in the 2019 Founder Fire.