Going away to summer camp is a rite of passage for many kids. For young patients with serious health conditions, a trip like this would not possible without a very special place called Camp Boggy Creek.
Actor Paul Newman and General Norman Schwarzkopf helped start the camp in 1996. In an interview 10 years ago, Schwarzkopf said he loved the camp because of how it made these children, battling very real illness, feel.
"They can forget their illness for a while; they are just plain kids," the general offered.
But his biggest smile came when he talked about time he spent with the children at the camp.
"They have water guns and they shoot me. They don't realize who they're shooting," he laughed.
Now, all these year later, his laughter lives on in the kids who visit Boggy Creek. Most recently, we caught up with a group from All Children's Hospital. At this send-off, kids gladly say good-bye to their parents
"You almost wish, as a mother, that they would cry when they leave you, and they don't," Sonia Martin joked.
Sonia's two sons, Joey and Joshua, both have heart problems. Four years ago, Joshua had open-heart surgery. Today, along with a medical team from All Children's Hospital, he's boarding a bus to Camp Boggy Creek in Eustis
"As a mother, it makes me feel a lot better to know that the entire team is there just in case something does come up so for us there is a huge weight off," Sonia continued.
That team includes pediatric cardiologist Dr. Gul Dadlani, who will ride with the kids up to camp.
"By the time they get to camp, they really blossom. You can see it in their eyes," he smiled.
Dr. Dadlani says most of these children would not be able to go to a sleep-over camp if not for Boggy Creek. "They have significant heart problems."
These children all have heart problems, from transplants to congenital defects and rhythm problems. This week is Heart Week, sponsored by the American Heart Association.
As we arrive at camp and tour the cozy cabins and wheelchair-friendly gym, it's easy to see why differences disappear.
"Coming down to camp, they meet other kids who have had multiple open-heart surgeries and who have to go the doctor and who have a scar on their chest and it give them a chance to be just like someone else."
Connie Nixon is a volunteer pediatric cardiology nurse from Shands Hospital in Gainesville, but this week, she's based here in a building called the "Patch."
"They can take care of the sickest kids you can imagine because the Patch here is set up like a mini-hospital," she explained.
For 13-year-old Daycie Graeves, it's her newfound friends that make camp special. "It's knowing that other people like me have what I have -- and that we're all treated equal and they're really kind and loving."
It's an experience she wishes could last the entire summer.
From art class to wood shop, campers create handcrafted treasures burning in names, dates and precious memories, then displaying their work on shelves and walls for other campers to enjoy.
Camper Jennifer Ortiz says, along with wood shop, one of the highlights of the trip is riding her favorite horse, Fred. A short golf cart ride away, through cabins and trees, we meet Fred grazing his way across the grassy field. Nearby is a rock tower and zip line that can accommodate all kinds of kids.
"They are able to elevate the children in wheelchairs up to the very top," Nixon explained.
There's also a theatre, designed with the help of actor Paul Newman. Unlike most public places, you won't find a handicapped section. Instead, move a couple of chairs and wheelchairs fit anywhere -- even on stage.
"It builds their self-esteem. We've seen kids who had little self-esteem because they were different and they come here and their self-esteem is raised 10-fold," Nixon continued.
Along with self-esteem Boggy Creek's culture is steeped in traditions, especially when fishing.
"We have what we call a kiss and release here -- when you catch a fish, you kiss it and return it for good luck," Nixon smiled.
Connie says this week at camp helps her bond with children she cares for all year long. "These kids become family -- they know my first name. And hugs, you can't go anywhere on this camp without hugs."
She admits coming to camp makes her feel like a kid again. "After 19 years, I come here because what happens at camp, stays at camp," she laughed.
Camp Boggy Creek
All Children's Hospital Pediatric Cardiology, Dr. Gul Dadlani
American Heart Association