MDA Volunteer Love Stories
By Rebecca Hume | Monday, August 28, 2023
MDA Summer Camp provides one magical week each year where children living with neuromuscular disease can gain independence, try new activities, make friends, laugh, sing, smile, grow, and just have fun. Volunteers and camp staff work hard to ensure that campers have an incredible adventure in a safe and supportive environment. However, campers aren’t the only ones who benefit from their week at camp.
Volunteering at camp (or other MDA family-driven events) is a rewarding experience that creates a valuable sense of purpose, providing new perspectives and deep connections. For some volunteers, time spent at camp not only provided valuable bonds with campers and unforgettable experiences, but also led to meeting the love of their lives.
Tom & Ann Gerlach – A Foundation of Friendship and Values
Growing up, Tom Gerlach joined his neighborhood friend, who lived with muscular dystrophy, at floor hockey games and other accessible activities. Tom learned about MDA Summer Camp through his friend and started volunteering when he was 16 years old. During her senior year of high school in 1990, Ann heard a morning announcement recruiting volunteers for a local MDA Summer Camp. She went home that day, talked to her parents, and filled out an application.
Their first summer at camp, Ann and Tom began building the foundation of a friendship that took shape from conversations and shared laughter while hanging out in the cafeteria with their campers, playing adapted sports with campers and other counselors, swimming, campfires, and the rare few hours of “free time” at night when counselors took shifts in cabins. They bonded at summer camp picnic reunions and spent a second summer at camp together. During their third year at camp, their friendship began to blossom into something more.
“Tom and I started spending more time together, just the two of us. And we found that we had a lot in common. We were in the right place in our lives to start seeing each other,” Ann says. “It was fun getting to know each other outside of camp and finding out that we had the same goals and values. We were both in college and working, so dating for us was dinner and homework. We kind of grew up together.”
Tom and Ann were married the summer between their junior and senior years of college. They welcomed their first child shortly after graduation and continued to grow their family over the years, having five children and recently celebrating their 30th anniversary. Ann reflects that their experience at camp together helped them grow as individuals and made them stronger as a couple.
“Putting someone else’s physical and medical well-being before your own gives you a different perspective on life. Just seeing the struggles some people have with simple everyday tasks makes you realize how much we take for granted,” Ann says. “As a couple, our oldest son was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy when he was 3 ½ years old. I think being part of the MDA family helped prepare us for some of the questions and concerns of the unknown when getting this diagnosis. We knew we could handle what was to come as long as we worked together.”
Tom and Ann both look back on their time at MDA Summer Camp as some of their favorite memories. In addition to finding each other, they cherish the time that they spent with campers, seeing the smiles and laughter the entire week of camp, and becoming lifelong friends with the families that MDA serves.
Andy and Brigitte McAllister – A Shared Passion for Volunteering
As a young woman with aspirations to become an Occupational Therapist, Brigitte McAllister first heard about MDA Summer Camp when chatting with a family friend about her desire to gain experience in her future field of study. She recognized that camp was a great opportunity to work with individuals who rely on occupational therapy and physical therapy to help them perform activities of daily living. When she applied to volunteer at camp in 2011, she had no idea that she would gain so much more from relationships with the campers and from one special relationship with another counselor.
Andy McAllister also volunteered for the first time at MDA Summer Camp in 2011. But it wasn’t until they both returned for a second summer in 2012 that Andy and Brigitte began to form a connection. Andy approached Brigitte on the last night of camp, asking for her phone number as they chaperoned the camp “Prom Night” and reached out to her shortly after the camp session ended.
“On our first date we enjoyed dinner and drinks and spent hours talking and laughing,” Brigitte says. “When he drove me home that evening, we had our first kiss, and I knew in that moment he was the guy I was going to marry.” After a month of dating, Brigitte and Andy committed to a long-distance relationship while he finished his last three years of school. With lots of travel, telephone laughter and tears, a few tough decisions, and the many ups and downs of living and loving far from each other, Andy proposed after graduation and the couple began to plan the rest of their lives together. They were married in 2016 and were both ecstatic to finally be living in the same place.
“Fast forward to today, we now have two beautiful children, Eleanora (Nora) who is 7 and Adam who is 5,” Brigitte says. “We moved into our first house in December 2021 and we both are happily employed. Who knew the guy I met in the pool at MDA summer camp back in 2012 would become my happily ever after!”
To Brigitte, the fact that they met volunteering at camp holds a special place in her heart. “It shows that we both value helping people and giving back,” she says. “What better place to meet your spouse than volunteering for an incredible cause?” As parents, Brigitte and Andy do their best to instill values of graciousness and gratitude in hopes that they too will one day volunteer for a cause that is important to them.
Tracy and Whitney Hamilton – A Caretaker’s Heart
Tracy Hamilton has been involved with the MDA since he was a young child. Tracy’s father lives with Facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy (FSHD) and his family participated in a variety of MDA events, where Tracy often heard about MDA Summer Camp. When he was finally old enough to volunteer, joining the counseling team in 2010 was a no-brainer. His future wife, Whitney, volunteered that same year as part of her curriculum studying physical therapy.
The two crossed paths throughout the week but they didn’t officially meet until a cooking class on the last day before camp ended. They chatted and got to know each other, realizing that they actually lived in the same neighborhood. When Whitney’s ride home from camp fell through, Tracy offered to drive her home. And, as he says, the rest was history.
Over the years, the couple continued to volunteer at camp, before and after marrying in 2013. “Each year, we were blessed to make wonderful memories and share in unforgettable experiences,” Tracy says.
Now the parents of two boys, Conrad and Hudson, Tracy and Whitney recall admiring each other’s caretaking mindset when they met at camp. “Tracy is a caretaker and will go to whatever lengths possible to put a smile on someone’s face and/or to help someone, whenever he is able,” Whitney says. “He is also amazing with kids! I was blessed to witness this for over a decade at camp and I knew without hesitation that he would be the best father for our children one day. I love watching Tracy with our boys, he is the perfect balance of fun, discipline, and education, I am truly blessed to have met him all those years ago at MDA Camp.”
“Whitney has always been a caretaker,” Tracy says. “Having a front row seat to watch that transition into motherhood has been a really special experience.”
In addition to witnessing and celebrating how much campers grow throughout the week, Tracy shares that one of his favorite things about volunteering at camp was being around other volunteers who were like-minded in a sense of being caretakers. “It’s people who have the ability to put themselves second and are actively trying to make sure each kid is having as much fun as possible, while providing a safe and supportive environment,” he says. “I have made some lifelong friends with other volunteers over the years at MDA camp, in addition to meeting my wife.”
Communication is also a big aspect of the volunteer role at camp. The need to develop strong and open communication provided Tracy and Whitney with the opportunity to grow as individuals and as a couple. “As individuals, volunteering made us learn how to communicate both with the kids and other volunteers, on their needs as well as our own,” Tracy says. “You have to learn how to lean on each other and communicate effectively. I think that specifically has carried over into our marriage. Not every day is going to be perfect, but we can work through anything because we have an open and effective line of communication.”
H and Sue Quinn – An Instant Connection
When H Quinn first saw Sue at MDA Summer Camp orientation, he was immediately drawn to her vibrant green eyes reflecting the summer sunshine. H had heard about the need for male volunteer counselors on a newscast and it appealed to his desire to find purpose beyond himself. As fate would have it, Sue saw the same newscast and felt called to serve as well.
When H and Sue both met as volunteers in 1994, they formed a fast connection. They discovered that they both attended the same college but, despite knowing some of the same people, they had not crossed paths before. They found time for quick conversations during the busy camp days and took advantage of free time when the campers were asleep, spending hours talking late into the night in the camp cafeteria and recognizing a deep connection. After camp, Sue invited H to a cabin that belonged to her friend and fellow volunteer. They began dating and were married in December of 1995.
“It has truly been a whirlwind since camp,” H says. “We had four kids in the span of 15 years. And now 29 years have passed since that first meeting. Wow!” The same qualities that they saw in each other all those years ago are still their favorite things about each other today. H shares that he loves Sue’s unique way of caring for the people around her. Sue echoes a similar sentiment, admiring H’s heart for serving others.
With the goal of helping others and a commitment to enhancing campers’ experiences, H and Sue’s purpose-filled reasons for volunteering also brought what H refers to as “mutual blessings”. The lessons they gained that first summer inspired them to return to camp year after year. “I learned to appreciate the soul of each person in my life – not for what they do for you or what they can do – but for who they are,” H shares. “Love their “being” and stay in the present with each soul you encounter.”
And the opportunity to contribute and share in the special happiness that surrounds MDA Summer Camp added just a little extra magic to their relationship. “It was such fun to see the joy camp brought to the campers and the staff,” Sue says. “That joy helped to enhance our life together.”
Volunteering Could Change Your Life
MDA Summer Camp offers an amazing opportunity for kids to just act like kids while they enjoy adapted activities and build relationships – an opportunity that would not be possible without the service of volunteers. But a week at camp doesn’t just change the lives of the campers, it has a lasting impact on the lives of those who volunteer. From sharing experiences with like-minded volunteers to building connections with campers and celebrating their joy and growth throughout the week, camp offers just as much as it asks of its volunteers.
“The relationships with the campers and other volunteers will probably be some of the best and most meaningful relationships in your life,” H says. And who knows – one of those other volunteers might just be your future spouse.
Disclaimer: No content on this site should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.