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Campers find heart at Camp Taylor
Camp Taylor pic 1
The campers at Camp Taylor get to experience many of the typical camp activities, including swimming, archery and talent contests, like the lip-sync performance during breakfast Thursday morning. - photo by ANGELINA MARTIN/The Journal

Kids meet, scars blend and wonders happen at Camp Taylor, which has provided a home away from home for young people and families of children with heart disease since 2002. The organization’s Teen Camp was held this week, and campers from around the state and country came to Stanislaus State to join in on the fun.

Campers were treated to a week that included activities like swimming, yoga, rock climbing, Bunjee jumping and archery, and local gym Crossfit Parabellum put together a crossfit-themed exercise for the kids. While these may seem like your average camp doings, for some campers, just taking off their shirt to go swimming is a big step as many have scars on their chests from the countless surgeries their condition has required.

“During my first year, I was afraid to show my scar,” said camper Dylan Dunning, who was enjoying his third year at Camp Taylor. “When I got to camp and saw everyone swimming, not afraid to show their scars, I became that way. Now, everyday at my own house I just walk around with my shirt off.”

Camp Taylor doesn’t just give kids with heart disease something to do over the summer; it provides campers with a support system that understands exactly what they are going through. Through a part of camp called the Giving Tree, campers, counselors and mentors are able to talk about their experiences with heart disease, good or bad, and share a piece of themselves that not many others can understand.

“The special thing about Camp Taylor is that we all have heart disease, so the bond is instant,” said camper Tanner Keller. “It’s not a camp where you go to escape your heart disease. This camp embraces it.”

“Everyone is such a family and understands each other,” added camper Hannah Mascarenas.

The family atmosphere isn’t just limited to the campers’ bond. Counselors, mentors, nurses and doctors all volunteer their time to the camp’s cause and form close relationships with the children.

“We take our health for granted, so when I come here it’s more of a humbling experience for me,” said counselor Michael Maio. “It lets me not think so much about the little things.”

Maio originally became involved with Camp Taylor’s charity events, but as he continued spending time with the camp’s kids, he wanted to help them in as many ways as he could. So, he became a counselor.

“It became more about the kids and watching them grow up,” said Maio. “If I can provide them with any sort of knowledge along the way that will help their situation, then that’s great.”

Along with activities and spending time with their counselors, campers also learn a great deal about the condition they live with. Heart education is a major part of Camp Taylor, with kids learning why their heart operates the way it does and what to do in times of emergency.

“Heart education goes hand in hand with the giving tree,” said Maio. “Heart education is learning about the physical, and then the giving tree is coping with the emotional.”

Pediatric cardiologist Dr. Kavin Desai was on hand for the camp, spending time both educating and bonding with the campers, who lovingly refer to him as “Double D.” Each dorm at the camp also has a nurse on site.

“There are all these people here for us who have set aside a week of their lives and donated their time,” said Keller.

Matthew Coe was once a participant in Teen Camp but now serves as a mentor, helping campers through the experiences that he knows all too well.

“I was in their exact shoes as a camper,” said Coe. “I went from being deathly afraid of my heart condition and not able to talk to anyone about it to telling everyone I meet. I try to do the same with the kids and get them to not be scared of the condition, but to be proud of it, understand it and realize it doesn’t define them.”

Maio and Coe, who both oversee the same group of boys, had a special Giving Tree moment with their group. The counselor and mentor asked their group if given the chance, would they take away their heart disease?

“We all said no,” said Coe. “Camp has made us realize it’s part of who we are and it’s something we wouldn’t want to change.”