ally Tonks of Lyme, Connecticut, knew immediately that Quinnipiac University's Camp No Limits College Days would be a great experience for her granddaughter, Georgie Morris.
After stepping into the Rocky Top Student Center, Tonks said her granddaughter's first comment was, "No one is staring at me."
Georgie is missing part of her left leg below the knee and has conjoined fingers on her right hand. The 8-year-old has grown accustomed to quizzical looks and explaining how amniotic band syndrome caused her limb loss.
No explanations were necessary on this day.
"This camp is a place where the kids see people just like them. They don't have to be afraid of anything. They can go out and have fun," says QU student Avani Patel, one of three founding camp organizers.
Camp No Limits is a nonprofit organization that sponsors nationwide camps that provide recreational activities, education and support for children with limb loss and their families. Patel and Courtney Miller and Jennifer McNaughton, all students in their final year of the doctor of physical therapy program, worked for more than two years organizing the first event, which was held in July 2015. It was the first Camp No Limits held on a college campus.
"It grew into much more than I originally thought. It surpassed any expectation I had for it," said Miller, who first attended a Camp No Limits in Maine in 2013. With encouragement from her professors, she spearheaded the team's efforts to bring the camp to Quinnipiac.
The first year, each of the 28 campers was paired with one or two student volunteers from QU's occupational therapy and physical therapy programs to assist in developing life skills and building motor skills and balance, often through games. The campers participated in discussions about the types of prostheses that are available for different activities. They also tried new sports by participating in the bike, running and sled-hockey clinics. On a field with a backdrop of puffy clouds and Connecticut's rolling hills, children ran, sidestepped, jumped and sometimes tumbled in the grass. Each child got back up with renewed determination.
"The younger kids seeing the older kids do something, they realize, 'Oh, I can do that.' And the older kids might see the younger kids doing something they didn't think possible," Miller said. "Everyone is learning something new from each other."
The campers spent time with teen and adult mentors, including Josh Kennison, a member of the USA Paralympics track team. He attended his first Camp No Limits a decade ago when he was 14-years-old; he says it built his confidence.
"These occupational therapy and physical therapy students have an opportunity to learn about kids with limb loss and spend time with the families, and that is something they don't do in school," said Kennison.
Miller said the camp's success came in part from community and Quinnipiac volunteers, as well as contributions from organizations and businesses, including the national Hanger Clinic that sponsored two campers. Some families are the only ones in their area who have children with limb loss. The parent support discussions were an opportunity to ask questions, explained Cathy Piterski of Hamden. Her 13-year-old son, Hayden, had amniotic band syndrome and was born without part of his arm. While this was his first time at Camp No Limits, he has attended other camps. Most often, he's in mainstream activities.
"We signed him up for anything he wanted to do and we just let him go," Piterski said. Her son currently plays in the Hamden Regional Youth Basketball League and in Hamden Fathers' Baseball/Softball Association. Hayden, a big Bobcats fan, was thrilled to spend time on the QU campus.
The camp also offered programs for siblings. Piterski brought her 9-year-old son, Reed, and said it was great to see both of her sons playing, learning and making friends. "It's a very emotional experience," said Piterski. "That is a commonality for the families here." It's moving to see all of the amazing things children with limb loss can accomplish, she said.
She added, "We come here and we have no limits at all."