Gluten-Free at Summer Camp
Canoeing on a serene lake…letting your mind wander on a nature hike…eating s’mores around the campfire…singing silly songs and practicing skits…making new friends…sleeping under the stars. Perhaps these are a few things you might remember from a childhood camp experience. And maybe you’ve dreamed of helping to create these same memories for your own son or daughter. But if they have celiac disease or another reason for following a strict gluten-free diet, this childhood “right of passage” may seem risky–if not impossible.
I’m here to assure you it’s not impossible, and I speak from experience. For the past two summers, my son Ryan, now age 9, has been fortunate enough to attend Camp Celiac, hosted by Camp Aldersgate in North Scituate, Rhode Island. The first camp of its kind, Camp Celiac has served gluten-free children ages 8-16 since July 2000, when it started as a weekend sleepaway camp. Demand from campers and parents resulted in it soon becoming a 5-day sleepaway camp drawing celiac kids from all over the country–and the world.
Clearly, demand for more camps of this nature has been strong as the number of diagnosed celiacs has grown. Today there are at least 16 camps in the United States that can safely accommodate gluten-free kids.
There are camps in each region of the country offering a wide variety of choices, whether you’re looking for a one-week camp or something longer. Camp Eagle Hill, founded in 1963 and located just two hours north of New York City in New York’s Hudson Valley, offers 2-week, 3-week, 4-week, and 7-week camps. They recently added a gluten-free kitchen so they could accommodate gluten-free campers after the owner’s daughter was diagnosed with celiac disease a year ago. While the majority of the campers at Camp Eagle Hill are not gluten-free, every effort is made to mirror the “regular” menu offerings with similar gluten-free meal options. In fact, the chefs have learned it’s often possible to make many of the meals gluten-free for all the campers.
As many of these camps have discovered, the benefits are worth any extra effort the chefs take when it comes to serving gluten-free kids. And it usually takes a parent of a child with celiac disease to appreciate the rewards. As Jesse Scherer, owner of Camp Eagle Hill, said, “When the celiac campers see kids in larger numbers that have gone through the same things…that they’re not alone in the world…not the only child being served the gluten-free food, it’s very special.”
I couldn’t agree more. Many of these celiac campers don’t know other kids in their neighborhood or school with celiac disease. Attending Camp Celiac was the first time our own son had been around other celiac kids, and it literally brought tears to my eyes knowing he was spending time with other boys and girls who face the same day-to-day challenges he faces regarding food, meals, class parties, and dining out. With all the camps now available to gluten-free kids, it’s likely you’ll find one that’s a good match for your own child. There are day camps and overnight camps for various durations,as well as camps with a particular focus. In Pennsylvania,there is an International Sports Training Camp, as well as two camps for Jewish kids (Camp Nah-Jee-Wah and Cedar Lake Camp). Free To Be Camp at Westminster in Michigan has a Christian focus. And one camp in Minnesota, Camp Ogichi Daa Kwe, specializes in empowering young women through wilderness tripping.
While geographic location is an important consideration,try to stay open minded. Don’t automatically rule out a camp that might be in another area of the country. This could be a great opportunity for your son or daughter to broaden their horizons–and for you and your other family members to plan a mini vacation touring a new area at the same time! While some camps like Camp Eagle Hill have separate gluten-free kitchens, others like Camp Celiac “scrub down” the kitchen twice before the gluten-free campers arrive for
the gluten-free week (when nothing containing gluten is even allowed in the kitchen). Still other camps may welcome both gluten-free and “gluten eating” campers, but maintain a separate area and strict standards for gluten-free food preparation, in order to avoid cross contact with gluten
It’s important to mention that these camps are not “focused” on celiac disease or a gluten-free lifestyle, per se. Aside from the gluten-free meals served, these are “ordinary” outdoor summer camps where kids can just be kids, without any worries about whether the food they eat is safe. They never have to ask, “Can I eat this?” or, “Is this gluten-free?”
They can just focus on enjoying special summertime traditions. Activities typically include outdoor sports, swimming and boating, crafts, learning useful skills, and team building. Interestingly, however, mealtime discussions among the campers often turn to food, challenges eating in social situations, favorite gluten-free brands of food, and “GF friendly” restaurants.
I was able to witness this first hand, since I volunteered for the past two years as a parent counselor at Camp Celiac. In addition to hearing the campers’ different perspectives about the gluten-free diet, I was able to observe the benefits of the camp experience for both boys and girls across a wide range of ages, from elementary school to high school. The camp typically prefers not to put counselors in charge of campers in their own child’s age group, so I was responsible for middle school girls. One, named Gillian, has been attending camp since 2007. She said, “It’s what I look forward to all year long. It’s like a whole new world for people like me. Camp is awesome!”
As with any camp, there will always be “first time” campers that get a bit homesick. But judging from the rate of repeat campers at Camp Celiac, this is one summer experience no previous camper wants to miss. In fact, when I asked our son to name his favorite week of the summer (and his summer is typically filled with plenty of exciting activities and trips!), he told me “Camp Celiac” both years in a row.
Deanna, now a college freshman, recalls her own experience: “I remember when I first went to camp, we were all sitting around talking about our favorite Chinese food restaurants. I was about to begin explaining why my parents always keep soy sauce in the car…and then it hit me. I didn’t have to explain anything there, and as a young kid so used to being different, that meant the world to me. We were all so different there, but so united by a bond that created lifelong friendships.”
With Facebook and mobile phones making it easier than ever to keep in touch, many of these young adult celiacs continue to share a unique bond that’s unlike the other friendships in their lives. And fortunately, with many gluten-free camps
to choose from now (and probably more to come), other celiac kids have an even greater opportunity to forge these supportive, lifelong friendships and memories.
One final but important note: Many of the camps do book up quickly and even have waiting lists, so it’s never too early to start researching. I’d also encourage you to contact the camps directly to address any specific questions or concerns
you may have.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Karen Broussard publishes glutenfreetravelsite.com and the free DINE GLUTEN FREE mobile app. Both contain thousands of GF dining and travel reviews from around the world. Karen is also the publisher of the Gluten Free Travel Blog and two e-books available on Amazon: Gluten-Free in London and Gluten-Free in Italy.