Impact, emotions come full circle at Camp WholeHeart

There is a phrase Brad Worrell likes to voice about Camp WholeHeart, which is for children 7 to 17 years old living with complex heart defects.

“This is really their time to shine,” Worrell said.

Counselor Chris Etheridge, middle, talks to campers before a construction activity at Camp WholeHeart. (Photos by camp counselor Rasheem Henderson)

Worrell, 26, a former camper and now multi-year counselor, knows as well as anyone. The East Carolina University student in health services management repeated nearly the exact phrase — “It’s a really good place for them to shine” — about a minute later during an interview about Camp WholeHeart.

Founder and director Priti Desai, associate professor of human development and family science in the College of Health and Human Performance, started Camp WholeHeart in 2005. Self-esteem, skill-based learning, fitness and nutrition concepts, discussions on living with a heart condition, fun and friendships are promoted during the annual fall weekend at Don Lee Camp in Arapahoe that ends with an uplifting camper award and talent show. Throughout the weekend, campers enjoy theme-based activities, arts, crafts and outdoor opportunities like archery, sailing and canoeing.

Worrell, Rasheem Henderson, Isabella Moore and Chris Etheridge are former campers who served as counselors this year. Henderson, Moore and Etheridge all go to community colleges in eastern North Carolina. Stemming from their camper experiences, they brought a personal perspective to being a counselor.

“When I got to camp, I wasn’t Brad with a heart condition. I was Brad,” Worrell said of his camper memories. “My first year was like a clean slate. I got to make a name for myself and create my own little reality for having a heart condition. As a counselor, you have a really good point of view and you see how much enjoyment the campers get from the activities or how much education they get from the various lessons. It’s really a unique experience.”

Campers and counselors, including Isabella Moore, second from left, laugh and dance together at Camp WholeHeart.

Etheridge, 21, had his first heart surgery when he was 6 days old.

“It’s cool to see that you have the heart issue, but you adapt to it,” he said. “I may do an activity a little bit differently or it might take a little longer, but still in the long run, you can still pretty much do anything you would like. That is a good thing to teach the campers. There is a learning curve on how to do some things, but don’t limit themselves is a big thing.”

Along with Etheridge, this was Moore’s first year as a counselor.

“I did feel like your first year at camp as a counselor feels like your first year at camp as a camper,” Moore, 21, said. “You are really nervous. For one of my campers, it was actually her first year as well and it was interesting because after everyone met, we did it together. All of the nerves calmed down and I got to see her really open up, and also see all of us open up. … It exceeded every expectation I had.”

This year’s camp theme was “Our good earth: the nature of our hearts.” Funding came from the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals and Alpha Phi Foundation.

The leadership team included certified medical assistant Emmy Leggett, community volunteer Nikki Williams, student leader Claire Manning and Department of Construction Management assistant professor Carol Massarra. Cole Miller, who specializes in pediatric cardiology, served as camp doctor. Sixteen ECU students volunteered, mostly from the child life program, but also in Master of Science in human development and family science, one studying engineering and one in the Brody School of Medicine.

Children hammer and work on a construction activity at Camp WholeHeart.

“Our team works hard to create a Camp WholeHeart family, and we hope that the experiences gained at camp have a long-lasting impact on campers.” Desai said. “Camp alumni who eagerly reach back to serve as counselors are one more proof that camp has served its purpose.”

As a first-time counselor, Moore was eager and enthusiastic about the role.

“We know the incredible impact being a camper has had on our lives, but now, we get to make the impact on campers’ lives,” she said. “I feel like it was amazing to get to do that. Anyone who will listen, I’ve been telling them about camp and how it was for me. Now it is like, ‘Wow, we are the ones getting to do that for them and to make sure they have an amazing time.’ It’s also fun because we get to safely watch them push themselves.”

Seizures limited Henderson’s ability to play sports when he was younger. He maintained a positive attitude, annually received Camp WholeHeart awards and turned to photography to continue his passion for sports.

The last two years of camp included Henderson, now 25, as a lead photographer, capturing camp moments he knows will be cherished by campers and their families.

“It’s a different feeling, but it also is so fun to see through my eyes what they see,” Henderson said. “You see some children who would not ever get to do this, outside of camp. They get to run around and play basketball, play football, do construction work and learn about hurricanes and so many things. They are around children their age, and they feel accepted, which is amazing. You don’t see that outside of camp. They have newfound bravery and they find their niche at camp.”

Campers and counselors enjoy an activity about building a hurricane safe home.