CMTA Turned Annual Camp Footprint Into ‘Empowered’ 5-Day Virtual Event

Joana Carvalho, PhD avatar

by Joana Carvalho, PhD |

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Camp Footprint

This summer, the Charcot-Marie-Tooth Association (CMTA) turned its annual Camp Footprint for children and teens with CMT disease into a virtual experience.

The unique initiative, which was launched by the CMTA in 2016, seeks to provide a safe sleepaway camp environment where children and adolescents with CMT can interact with each other and share their experiences.

For four editions, the kid campers had the chance to participate in a weeklong camp in a wooded region on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, joining in a series of daily activities meant to develop their sense of exploration and creativity, and their ability to make new friends.

This year, due to restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, children and teens making up “The Tribe of the Funky Feet” replaced their usual sleepaway camp experience with a five-day virtual festival of activities via Zoom.

With a few adjustments, the virtual Camp Footprint held in August allowed campers to engage in their favorite activities, including the traditional first-night campfire. To recreate the event of years past, each camper received a special kit by mail — the “Camp in a Box” — that contained all the items needed to make a virtual bonfire at home, including portable flickering lanterns to recreate the fire, a camp T-shirt, and a campfire mug.

Each of the five nights of virtual Camp Footprint had a specific theme. The first night’s campfire was followed by a night scavenger hunt, an adventure room experience, a movie night, and finally a dance party on the last night.

In addition to all of the items for the virtual bonfire, the Camp in a Box kit contained items for all of the other thematic nights, including pizza gift cards for the movie night, and ribbon wands and glow bracelets for the dance party.

During the day, the campers participated in activities that were usually conducted in the traditional summer camp, including arts and crafts, and cupcake and cookie baking.

According to camp director Jonah Berger, the virtual Camp Footprint had several unexpected advantages over the traditional sleepaway camp.

“The Zoom platform allowed campers to see into each other’s homes, which were set up with specially decorated ‘forts’ around their computers. This enabled them to show and tell each other about their families, pets and musical instruments,” Berger said in a CMTA report.

“Being in their own homes also made campers more comfortable and more willing to open up,” he added.

On a logistical level, the virtual camp also was easier, Berger said, noting that transitioning between activities “only took 20 seconds online, compared to the 20 minutes it takes in real life.”

This year, parents played a key role in ensuring their children had the best possible experience participating in the virtual Camp Footprint, Berger said. This ranged from helping their campers with camp activities and night events to setting up pranks.

Both campers and counselors, including veterans and those participating in the initiative for the first time, praised this virtual edition of the camp.

“Day after day, the screen lit up with over 100 beautiful faces who know exactly what it’s like and can understand those pieces of me that I’ve carried alone without having to say a word,” said Cara Leith, a first-time counselor in the camp.

“For one week CMT isn’t an ugly, painful neurological disease, it’s a superpower,” said Erin Black, a 19-year-old camper. Black said the five-day camp experience made her “feel free, joyful and empowered.”