Tooele • Chalene Sellers doesn't remember the helicopter ride to the hospital in February 2010, her body suffering from respiratory failure. Seventeen months later, the 11-year-old from South Jordan giggles as she describes the dramatic event she can never fully appreciate.
But Chalene now understands her asthma isn't a laughing matter.
Earlier this month, Chalene returned to Camp Wyatt, the asthma camp sponsored by the American Lung Association for kids between ages 8 and 14, for her second summer. The five-day program, held at Camp Wapiti in Settlement Canyon near Tooele, focused on teaching the 78 kids how to live with and control their asthma. Each day, the campers attended an education session on anatomy and triggers of asthma.
They learned about their asthma action plans and medications and were encouraged to be active. Throughout the week, they rotated between canoeing, rock climbing, archery and other activities they might have previously avoided for fear of having an asthma attack.
Asthma is an inflammation of the airways characterized by an extreme sensitivity to triggers like dust or smoke. During an attack, the airways narrow, making it difficult to breathe. Asthma affects an estimated 7.1 million children under the age of 18, and is the third most common cause of hospitalization for kids younger than 15, according to American Lung Association.
Braden Christiansen, 14, of Highland, said he was surprised to spend the whole week outdoors at camp. Braden has a severe form of asthma and has attended Camp Wyatt the past several summers.
He said he learned at camp "just how to live with it and how to have fun and that you can do things outside … a lot of parents think they can't let their kids go anywhere."
About 60 volunteers, many of whom are University of Utah pharmacy and nursing students, comprise camp staff and keep the kids safe. Respiratory therapy students from Weber State University also use the camp as an opportunity to apply classroom concepts. A medical staff, including two doctors, remains at camp the entire week. The camp reaches volunteer capacity by early May, according to Spencer Slade, program coordinator for the American Lung Association. Camper attendance has never reached its capacity of 120.
Camp Wyatt also acts as a self-esteem booster since the campers all have asthma and use inhalers, said Lacey Holmes, spokeswoman for the American Lung Association. "It's great being with people and kids who understand the medical part of you and then you can have a deeper friendship."
Christiansen said he looks forward to camp each summer.
This year, he was responsible for overseeing the camp store, where campers could spend hard-earned "Rolo Bucks" on a variety of prizes. The paper money is named for Roland "Rolo" Wyatt and his family, who founded the camp about 28 years ago. The program is financed by various foundations, organizations and donors.
Slade said that without volunteers and donations, Camp Wyatt would cost about $1,000 per camper. While the camp fee is $200 per child, 51 percent of this summer's attendants received "camperships," or some sort of fee reduction.
Camp Wyatt is Utah's only residential or day camp available to the 64,000 asthmatic kids in the state, Slade said. While the American Lung Association's "Open Airways for Schools" program also educates kids about asthma management, Camp Wyatt's outdoors setting encourages campers to be active.
"Some of the campers feel alone or think 'I'm the only one with asthma I can't do anything.' And then to watch them do stuff they wouldn't usually do, like rock climbing, canoeing, because they're afraid they'll have an asthma attack," said Slade. "For me, that's the greatest experience."
Register for camp
To register or volunteer at Camp Wyatt next summer, visit lungutah.org/Camp_Wyatt.htm or contact Spencer Slade by email at email@example.com or by phone at 801-931-6995.