Young amputees jumping rope
“I want to climb the rock wall with one arm,” said one of the children at Camp STAR (Summer Time Amputee Retreat) as the campers, some quiet and some rambunctious, sat in a lodge and discussed goals for the week.
“That’s impossible,” someone replied, “You’d have to be like Superman.”
But at Camp STAR, climbing rock walls, swimming and tackling obstacle courses with one arm is exactly the kind of challenge attempted every day.
Nestled in a woody area about 45 minutes from Downtown Pittsburgh, the camp last week hosted its largest summertime retreat since its revival in 2008.
The campers, who are all child amputees age 8 to 18, spent five days ending Sunday on the grounds of Camp Kon-O-Kwee/Spencer near Zelienople canoeing, playing water polo, crowning themselves cornhole champions and staying up past curfew.
“I tell all my friends, ‘I’m going to this camp, be jealous,’ ” said Cody Kenyon, a 14-year old from Toledo, Ohio, who has attended the camp four years in a row. Cody lost his leg when he was 11 months old and now has a prosthetic limb.
From across the United States and Canada, 10 campers and four counselors in training, who are campers over 18 years old, attended this year’s camp. It has been run for the past six years by Cindy McCue of Penn Hills, who revived it with the help of the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC and four Monroeville Girl Scouts looking to complete their Gold Award project.
After losing her leg to cancer when she was 14, Ms. McCue attended the camp as a teenager. The amputee camp, previously named Adolescent Amputee camp, was established in 1976 by Children’s Hospital before closing down in 2004.
The camp is still run through the hospital but is funded entirely by donors, Ms. McCue said. Each camper is charged $50, and the registration form for the camp can be found on the Camp STAR website.
When asked if she keeps in touch with any of the people who attended the camp with her as a child, Ms. McCue laughed and said, “Well, I married one of them.” Terry McCue, her husband, also helps run the camp.
As former campers, the couple can relate to the current camper’s propensity for adolescent tendencies — it was not long ago that they were sneaking away for walks in the woods themselves.
The campsite has a pool, several lodges, a zip line course, rock walls, a basketball court and an obstacle course. The obstacle course, dubbed the “trail of courage,” is a perennial highlight of the five-day event.
Campers climb over walls, swing on ropes and walk on tree trunks to test the limits of their physical ability. The environment is very safe and at any given time at least a prosthetist, a nurse, a recreational therapist and two physical therapists are on duty.
But as Ms. McCue said with a chuckle, “somebody always falls in the mud.”
Campers talk fondly about not only the activities on the schedule but also about those that are unplanned. Cody described one of his favorite moments of camp as a spontaneous “hooray” when he arrived. Another favorite moment was when he and some of the other boys stayed up past their lights-out time and climbed through a window in the middle of the night.
The chance to be with others of a similar background is a welcome reprieve for campers.
“Growing up I felt like the only amputee at the time,” Mr. McCue said. Being in a place where people shared the same struggles and embarrassments was a “real confidence boost,” he added.
Cody echoed the that sentiment.
“Words can’t describe how fun it is,” Cody said. “In a school of over 500 kids, and you’re the only [amputee], it gets lonely sometimes.”
While sitting outside the lodge, listening to the campers inside play a rowdy game of catch, Ms. McCue said the goal she set out to tackle six years ago has largely been accomplished.
“They’re still coming back,” she said. “That makes me feel like it’s successful.”