Wade Balmer directs Camp JRA in Eastern Pennsylvania, and he has a unique perspective on camps, chronic disease and childhood: “I know what it’s like to feel different,” Wade said. “Diagnosed with dermatomyositis at age 5, all I’ve ever known is what it’s like to stand out from everyone else. Questions like ‘Why are your joints so red?’ ‘Why can’t you play sports with us?’ or ‘Why are you so tired all the time?’ filled my childhood.”
Wade remembers feeling very much alone: “No one could personally understand what I was facing with my disease – not my friends, not my teachers, not my doctors or my family. I never met any other children with juvenile dermatomyositis, so as far as I was concerned, I was the only kid in the world who knew what life was like with this disease. I knew I was different, and I never truly understood what it meant to be accepted. All that changed when I attended Camp JRA for the first time in 1997.”
Camp JRA – for “Juveniles Reaching Achievement” – is a place where children come year after year to have fun while being around other campers and counselors with similar challenges.
The stories are the same year after year, Wade says: “The campers tell us it’s the one place on Earth where they feel as if they truly fit in.” For Wade, Camp JRA was a miracle. “Not only was I feeling accepted but understood as well.” In the first camp season in 1996, Camp JRA began with 20 campers. Since then, it’s grown and this year will host 95 campers.