Asthma Camp Offer Breath of Fresh Air

Health, Home & Family
on July 8, 2010
Courtesy of Dina Guntensperger "There's not enough awareness about how fatal a serious attack can be," says Guntensperger, of Salida, Calif.

Dina Güntensperger, 52, calls her volunteer service at an asthma camp in Yosemite National Park her soul work.

Güntensperger knows the respiratory disease well. Years ago, a child who lived in her former neighborhood died in her sleep of an asthma attack. What a horrible thing to have to live with, says the mother of eight children, four of whom are adopted. Theres not enough awareness about how fatal a serious attack can be.

Five of her own children have had some form of asthma, contributing to Güntenspergers commitment to educate people about the importance of understanding asthma medications.

Her family first attended asthma camp in Yosemite as participants in 2005 after she noticed a flyer at her daughters school in Salida, Calif. (pop. 12,560). Living in the Central Valley, where asthma rates are more than twice the national average, the camp was a godsend for her familyand for her. We were just so delighted to be there and to learn and to be in Yosemite. I became a volunteer because it was a really great cause, and I wanted to go back, she says.

The American Lung Association and other nonprofit organizations operate similar asthma camps nationwide. Yosemite Ridge, an organization dedicated to providing camps for children with chronic illnesses, runs the asthma camps in Yosemite, leasing space at Camp Wawona, not far from the waterfalls, granite domes and giant sequoia trees that make the park famous.

The Yosemite Ridge camps rely on grants for funding and usually include a teen camp in the summer and a family camp in the fall. The goal of asthma camp is to teach youngsters how to effectively manage the disease. Typically, the camps serve children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who dont have consistent access to health care.

By bringing them here and giving them the necessary education, were empowering them to be in control of their asthma, says Melanie Sue Ruvalcaba, 32, director of Yosemite Ridge, based in Fresno, Calif. Kids also have the opportunity to share experiences with peers in a supportive environment.

Many campers arrive without knowing how to manage their asthma. A lot of them have misconceptions and they dont use their medicines correctly, says Stephen Naylon, 60, a pediatric nurse practitioner in Lemoore, Calif.

Naylon says serving as volunteer medical coordinator for the Yosemite Ridge camps allows him to work with kids outside of a clinical setting. Here, Im with them all day and all night instead of the 15 minutes they might get in my office, he says. Because the kids are being managed around the clock, they are able to see how specific medications can help them. They soon realize they can do anything, including hiking up a tall peak or enjoying the fall foliage, as long as they control their asthma.

If the kids want a diversion from the outdoors, Güntensperger instructs them in arts and crafts. Last year, she enlisted help from her son Jean-Luc, 15, who taught the younger campers to make puffball spiders with pipe cleaner legs. A former camper himself, Jean-Luc remembers leaving the camp with a better understanding of the disease and how it affects his body.

Although most of the participants live in the nearby Central Valley, going to Yosemite is a novelty in itself for many. At last years family camp, 13 migrant farm worker families were among 23 families that participated, and many had never set foot in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, let alone gone camping. One morning, Ruvalcaba got up early to find a crowd of campers outside. There were two deer out there, she says. They had never seen one so close and they were so excited.