To Camp and Back: Eliot’s Story

My journey with the Painted Turtle Camp began over a decade ago. At fourteen and finally in remission from my recently diagnosed Crohn’s Disease, I was the perfect candidate for a new camp opening up in Lake Hughes. An oasis created for children and teenagers with life-threatening illnesses. The idea seemed unreal. How were a bunch of kids with life-threatening illnesses supposed to have a normal summer camp experience?

When you are first diagnosed you have a genetic illnesses, everything seems to become about aspects of you that don’t accurately represent you. Your genes, your medications, your clinical trials, your potential outcome. Normalcy is not an easy thing to come by.

But I am not just my DNA and environment. I am a product of my choices and my experiences. Eleven years ago I chose to attend a camp that I thought would change how I looked at my disease. Instead I attended a camp that changed how I see the world.

Driving onto The Painted Turtle campground is not unlike driving into Wonderland. The overwhelming tone of camp was one of welcoming and safety. I entered camp a curious, quiet girl and left a little bit louder and a lot stronger. At camp I found more than ropes courses and horseback riding, I found friends, mentors, and a support group. With The Painted Turtle’s help, I was able to transition from fear to acceptance. And each year I attended camp deepened the feeling that The Painted Turtle was my home.

Even my actual family thought so. We attended the first CCFA (Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America) family weekend and were instantly hooked. My step-father, brother, and long time camp volunteer, “Pops” set out to make a set of Camelot worthy shield in the wood shop. My mom compared camera notes with Sherry, long time volunteer camp photographer and also Pops wife. And I sat there and watched my families collide.

I believe I found my best self while volunteering at camp. There is only so much someone can learn from reading an informational pamphlet or a WebMD article about an illness. Spending a week overnight with children with multiple sclerosis or epidural disfiguration is another experience entirely. At The Painted Turtle, the counselors hit the ground running. Counselors are responsible for the well-being of children whose medical frustrations cause them to hear “no” every day of their lives. To be a Painted Turtle counselor, you have to be camper-centered, aiming for the campers to have the best week of their life. Whether it be as radical as getting a child with Muscular Dystrophy out of his wheelchair and onto a zip line or as simple as grabbing a bunch of girls with Crohn’s Disease to dance the night away.

The Painted Turtle expanded my definition of empathy and compassion. Transitioning from camper to counselor, I suddenly was able to look behind the curtain so to speak and see the intentionality of the magic. I witnessed all the effort that was put into making someone else’s week special. So I began volunteering constantly. From throwing benefit concerts for Children’s Hospice to interning with The Creative Visions Foundation and The United Nations Association of San Diego. From fundraising events to administrative paperwork to hands on volunteering. I did it all, all while continuing to return every year to The Painted Turtle. I had found the silver lining to my illnesses.

When I arrived at university, I was absolute in my decision to become a doctor. I had been calling myself pre-med since I was a child. Ten minutes into the class and I finally had a grasp on what it was that I truly passionate about. I want to lessen the suffering of others. And I wanted to make that my career.

The experience of working with these children changed my life. It both inspiring, and sobering. For me it was not an adventure in volun-tourism. I actively engaged with both the people I worked with and for. Our relationship was reciprocal, though they probably changed my life more than I changed theirs.

I am one of the few. The proud. The original campers of The Painted Turtle. We are an accomplished, potentially world-changing bunch. We all have the potential to make our mark on the world. And while we owe a lot of that to our doctors and parents. We also owe a lot of that to you guys, The Painted Turtle.

I am equipped with the tools to be an effective and caring humanitarian. I have a profound appreciation for the kinds of experiences that support other people as they work to overcome adversity. And it all leads back to The Painted Turtle. I am who I am, in part because of the values, bravery, and leadership instilled in me during my time at camp.

I chose to come to camp twelve years ago. I didn’t know it would become such a catalyst for my life’s work. Camp has always been a part of me. And now I’m back. And working at The Painted Turtle is not only where I belong, but also where I believe I can do my best work. I have the unique perspective as well as the skill sets to be a diligent and effective Communications Assistant.

I’m so proud to be able to say that I now work for The Painted Turtle.

Eliot Dreiband, Camper, Counselor, Staff Member