LINWOOD, Kan. (WIBW) - Kelsey Johnson got the best possible gift for her 16th birthday - it was the first day the Muscular Dystrophy Association's annual summer camp.
The Silver Lake teen is attending the camp at Tall Oaks Conference Center near Linwood for the second year. She calls it an amazing place.
Kourtney Kampsen from Topeka agrees. She's attending the camp for the third year, and says the varied activities and nice people keep her coming back.
Both girls have forms of muscular dystrophy. For Kourtney, myasthenia gravis affects mainly the muscles of her eyelid. For Kelsey, charcot marie tooth disease weakens her leg, making it often necessary for her to use a wheelchair to get around.
At home, the conditions set them apart, but at camp, for one week, they're just like everyone else.
It's a feeling that's hard to describe.
Kelsey says she never really feels any peer pressure about her disability at home, but, she says, the wheelchair definitely sets her apart from others. Her younger sister also has the condition and attends camp. Coming to camp, she said, helps them realize they're not the only people in the world with disabilities and that other people understand what they go through.
Kourtney agrees. She says camp has given her somebody to talk to who can relate to her feelings.
"It makes me feel like I'm not alone," she said.
Senior counselor Dusty Deines is working his seventh camp. He says he started because of his cousin, Adam, who had duchenne muscular dystrophy, wanted him to share the experience. Adam passed away several years ago, but Dusty keeps returning to camp, in part to honor his memory by giving other kids the experience that meant so much to him.
Deines says the cliche is true - camp really is the best week of the year for the campers. He says they develop relationships, both with each other and with their counselors, that make them inseparable. For a week, they are around people who are like themselves and can escape from all the things that go on in their everyday life.
Deines calls camp week "coming home."
It's only one week, but it's a week they say sustains them the entire year.
Kourtney says it has changed her a lot, from a shy young girl into a more outgoing young woman.
Kelsey says she, too, has changed. She says camp gave her more confidence.
"It's made me believe in myself a little more, I think," she said.
Families don't pay anything for the camp. It is funded entirely through donations to MDA. Camp organizers say 77 kids from northeast Kansas attended the Linwood session.
If you'd like to help send kids to camp or assist with other MDA services, you can click the link to donate to the "bail" of 13's Melissa Brunner for the upcoming MDA Lock-up fundraising event.