As Vrushali Thakkar (22Ox) commanded a zip line tower 50 feet above the ground, she carefully clipped in campers, but one camper wouldn’t budge. Terrified to tackle the zip line, he refused to push off the platform. But Thakkar took her time with the camper, understanding that he needed patience and support. After an hour-long pep talk, he stepped off the tower and flew down the zip line, smiling. 

For more than 25 years, Camp Twin Lakes has offered children with special health care needs and life challenges an engaging community full of other kids in similar situations. Many of the children that attend the camp are patients served by Emory University Hospital and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA). 

Based in Rutledge, Georgia, the camp is staffed with student volunteers. This past summer, Thakkar and Josef Quispe (24C) participated as medical liaisons and members on the Outdoor Adventure Team, which assisted campers in activities like zip lining, rock climbing and a giant swing.

“We are both just kids like [the campers] but just a little older,” Quispe said. “Anything they find fun, we would also find fun. They saw me and Vrushali as a big brother and big sister to trust and find inspiration.”

In their 10-week program, Camp Twin Lakes hosts a new group of children each week — Camp Sunshine for child cancer patients, Camp Kudzu for children with Type 1 diabetes and Camp Braveheart for children with heart defects, to name a few. The campers participate in a week of fun, adaptive camp activities like a high ropes course, nature trails, talent shows and a wheelchair-accessible treehouse.

“To see people who have always been told that they can’t do something because of their disability, like climb a rock wall or ride a zip line, is the most rewarding experience,” Thakkar said. “They have the opportunity to do that here.” 

As members of the Outdoor Adventure team, Thakkar and Quispe assisted campers in wheelchairs by helping them climb rock walls. They communicated with non-verbal campers through observing the movement of their arms and legs to help them confidently navigate the high ropes course. They also splashed water at the campers while kayaking to create a fun and exciting environment to grow.

“Something that my boss told me is to have fun and not highlight their illness or challenge,” Thakkar said. “The camp is to feel included, belonged and supported by your community who knows that you can push your limits and is there to encourage you every step of the way. We are here to have fun and support one another. It’s not a hospital, it’s a camp.”

Thakkar is on the pre-med track and hopes to become a pediatrician, and Quispe aspires to become a pediatric oncologist nurse. Camp Twin Lakes gave them the opportunity to have a summer of helping children and creating friendships while also learning how to accommodate children with different health challenges each week.

Every day at camp, they worked with members of the specialized medical teams that include several doctors and nurses from Emory University Hospital. These individuals taught Thakkar and Quispe about different diagnoses and how to care for certain children. 

“I saw physicians who care so much about these children outside of the hospital setting,” Thakkar said. “It really inspired me and solidified that this is the field I want to go into.” 

Both she and Quispe also received several opportunities for research and shadowing from Emory doctors who attended the camp. 

One of the doctors was Dr. Caroline Ray, an Emory University resident doctor specializing in child neurology and a veteran at Camp Twin Lakes. She was an undergraduate medical liaison on the Art and Music Team — which assisted children in learning to drum, dance or make pottery — before graduating to the medical lodge, where all the doctors reside, when she entered medical school. This summer, she worked in the medical lodge at Camp Kudzu to train staff and mentor excited newcomers, like Thakkar and Quispe.

Ray understands that the camp is a special opportunity for both campers and medical staff to come together outside hospital walls and understand the children’s conditions.

“Being able to get education on their conditions from friends in a really fun, stress-free environment helps them feel like a normal kid,” Ray said.

Camp Kudzu holds a tradition every year where its counselors, all of whom have Type 1 diabetes themselves, line up according to how long each has had their diagnosis. The oldest counselor has had Type 1 diabetes for 50 years. The youngest counselor for 18 years. The line wraps around the entire cafeteria.

“It really inspired campers with a message of ‘You can do this,’” Ray said. “This is a life-threatening diagnosis, but we are going to provide you [with] the resources and community to get through this.”

Like Ray’s journey through her young adulthood, Quispe also plans to return to Camp Twin Lakes next summer. Quispe’s experience with one of his campers sealed the deal for him.

During the first week of camp, Quispe brought his campers to the pond to fish. One timid camper refused to touch any of the fish he reeled in, but Quispe lightened him up by giving each fish a kiss and releasing them back in the pond. By the end of the week, the camper was taking fish off the hook himself and gave each  fish a kiss as well. 

When the week ended, the camper started to cry and made Quispe promise that he would come back next year. 

“I was engulfed in camp and these kids, understanding what they are going through and trying to make their week here at camp the best week of their lives,” Quispe said.

Dr. Jenny Shim is a pediatric hematologist and oncologist at CHOA and fellow at Emory University researching pediatric tumors. She was a newcomer this summer working in the medical lodge at Camp Sunshine. But after only one summer, she plans to return and urges Emory students to join the community.

“When volunteering, you might think you’re giving more, but when we go to camp, we are receiving too, by watching patients enjoy the camp and be happy in a community,” Shim said. “It’s a big motivation for me to go back, and it will be a great experience for students.”

Camp Twin Lakes staff lead a dance during the opening ceremony for Camp Sunshine Family Weekend. (Courtesy of Vrushali Thakkar)