Elm cabin, lower cabin cluster

Insights by Ira on Summers of Friendship & Growth: Life Lessons from MDA Camp

I remember the magic of MDA Summer Camp like it was yesterday, especially taking a swim with all of my friends on a scorching summer day! It is one of those things that you never forget. It was a hot and humid early summer afternoon, and we were all gathered at the right place, at the right time.  I always participated in the usual and customary afternoon activity at camp, and this day was no different. Spending the afternoon splashing in the camp pool with my friends and counselor on the hottest day of summer was just one of many amazing memories that I have from my time at camp.

Babler Park Entrance

Babler Park Entrance

Have you ever physically taken a stroll down memory lane?  A few years ago, I did just that. One Saturday afternoon, I took an independent drive to visit the state park where I attended camp when I was younger.  The beautiful park is filled with great hiking paths, equestrian trails, picnic areas, fishing ponds, and the beautiful memories from my youth. As the park is open to the public, I was able to take my time on this particular day and explore the park for the first time in my adult life. After 30 minutes of driving around the majestic park, I arrived at the outdoor education center. The outdoor education center is the expansive section of the park where the camp adventures, the friendships, the love, and the spirit of MDA roamed through many of my summers.  Getting out of my vehicle and immediately rolling around the sacred ground of the former camp site, I experienced a wave of emotions, and my mind was flooded with flashbacks.  The sky was clear on that spring afternoon and the section of the park was completely empty and quiet. Seizing the opportunity to retrace the path of my youth in peace, I took a generous amount of time to stop and reflect at each area where my life, my character, and my spirit of adventure were formed.

The campgrounds start with an administrative building and then lead to the dining hall. One look into the dining hall window and I could immediately see, hear, smell, and taste all of the amazing meals that I had shared with friends during those summers at camp. I continued to the first cluster of cabins that were my summertime dwelling during so many years at camp: Elm, Redbud, Hickory, and Dogwood.  I was \ overcome with emotion as I placed my hand on the door of the cabin named Elm, the cabin where camp started for me.

Camp dining hall

Camp dining hall

As soon as I was old enough to attend MDA Summer Camp until my last summer there, camp was the highlight of my year. My first time at camp was my first true experience away from home, and it was also my first experience in the great outdoors.  Those small cabins in the park were where it all began, and they will always be my first home-away-from-home. I have a long list of why camp was impactful to me, but one of the most influential aspects of MDA Summer Camp was being able to spend an entire week with kids that were like me. We swam together, we rode horses together, we played many games of competitive wheelchair hockey together, we listened to music together, we danced together, we stayed up late together, we rode on firetrucks together…we developed close bonds, built amazing friendships, and grew up together. We spent those summers not as patients with a neuromuscular condition, not as kids with a disability… instead, we learned through the amazing event of camp that we were just kids. And that, like other kids, we could be active in nature, develop a strong camaraderie with one another, and live life.

Ira Walker on a fire truck ride with camp buddies; Troy Biernbaum, Jon Kempema, Alex Tessmer

Ira Walker on a fire truck ride with camp buddies; Troy Biernbaum, Jon Kempema, Alex Tessmer

After visiting the lower cabins, I followed a path to the upper cluster of cabins, which were for the older campers: Oak, Red Cedar, Walnut, and Maple. I sat in the middle picnic table area, took a deep breath, and became misty eyed as I vividly recalled the joyous memories from my later camp years.  My reflections brought me to my final year of camp. My last summer at camp, I participated in every single activity that was available to me. I made certain to invest a generous amount of time having conversations and connecting with my camp friends, some who had been with me on my camp journey from the very beginning.  Although I did not know the importance of it at the time and I didn’t realize it until a few years later, my final year of MDA Summer Camp would always be extra special and meaningful to me because I was able to spend every moment that camp session with someone who I will always consider my best friend, Jon.

Upper cabin cluster

Upper cabin cluster

Jon and I met when we were teenagers and became instant friends. When I think about a person that could light up a room the moment that they entered it, the first name I think of is Jon. When I think about a person that would do anything for a friend, I think of Jon. When I think about a person that always emulated joyfulness, positive energy, charisma, and charm, the very first person I think of is Jon. During our first year of friendship our relationship evolved into a strong brotherhood bond, and it only made sense that Jon would join me at camp as my counselor that summer. Having Jon with me at camp not only meant having my favorite person in the world with me during my favorite summertime pastime, but it also meant that I had a friend and wingman with me to help me to evolve my courage, my strength of character, my social tenacity, and my spirit of adventure. Jon’s presence with me at camp was the biggest gift that I’ve ever received from a friend.

Jon keeping the rain off Ira at camp

Jon keeping the rain off Ira at camp

Jon and I attended the same college. After graduation, Jon moved from St. Louis to Texas, got married, and started a family. We remained close friends and communicated often.  Jon was usually the first person to call and wish me a happy birthday and the first person to call and say a Happy New Year’s. We called each other regularly to reminisce on our collegiate days and chat about how our young adult lives were evolving. A call that I remember vividly, was the call he made to me to share the news that he had been diagnosed with stage 3 cancer. In November 2015, the man that was a true and dedicated friend to all, the life of the party, the charming athletic collegiate baseball player, and a strong member of the MDA volunteer community passed away. Jon’s memory will always remain, his love will always be felt, and there is not a day that goes by that I don’t stop for a moment to smile and reflect on the endless memories of good times I shared with Jon.  The lives of many of my camp friends and Jon have truly taught me to understand the breviate of life and that it is essential that we must take time to enjoy one other and the beauty of life.  A lesson that I will never take for granted and a lesson that guides me each day to see the best in all matters of life.

Ira and Jon during last year of camp

Ira and Jon during last year of camp

My memories with Jon and memories of the many other summers spent at camp came flooding back as I sat in the park by my old cabins. I was absorbed into the serene environment, in deep recollection of the good times we all had there.  Before I left memory lane, I stopped by the pool area.  Staring at the pool from behind the chain link fence, the memory of swimming with Jon brought a big smile to my face. MDA Summer Camp will always be a significant and foundational part of my life. I will always cherish all of the caring, thoughtful, and patient individuals that volunteered during that time and be grateful for the many valuable volunteers who are actively supporting MDA Summer Camps across the nation.  The act of serving at MDA Summer Camp makes it possible for youth living with neuromuscular disease to grow, create lifelong memories, and have amazing adventures.  My visit to my old camp was a fulfilling and meaningful way for me to revisit the best times of my life.  For any parent that is considering sending their youth to MDA Summer Camp, I strongly encourage you to do so. For any youth that is considering whether or not to go to camp, I strongly urge you to attend camp. MDA Summer Camp was the most meaningful and life changing experience that I have ever had and has helped me to grow and evolve into the person that I am today.

 

 


Next Steps and Useful Resources

  • Learn more about Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) here.
  • To learn more about MDA summer camp, visit here. To apply to send your child to summer camp, visit here.
  • To become a MDA summer camp volunteer, visit here.
  • MDA’s Resource Center provides support, guidance, and resources for patients and families. Contact the MDA Resource Center at 1-833-ASK-MDA1 or ResourceCenter@mdausa.org
  • Stay up-to-date on Quest content! Subscribe to Quest Magazine and Newsletter.

Disclaimer: No content on this site should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.