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Colorado's Cleft Camp creates community for kids with shared medical experiences

Posted at 12:30 PM, Sep 11, 2023

BRECKENRIDGE — Kids from across southern Colorado with shared or similar medical diagnoses of cleft lips and/or palates get together in Breckenridge, Colorado for one week, two times a year, as a part of Children's Hospital Colorado's Cleft Camp, a non-profit initiative.

"I can't wait to tell my mom and dad about this," shouts a Cleft Camp attendee after hopping down from climbing a rock wall blindfolded.

The camp is designed so the kids who attend can develop a sense of community with others who share this birth condition while having fun in a traditional camp environment.

For many of the kids, this is often the first, or sometimes only, time they meet with others who also have cleft lips and/or palates.

"I don't know anyone with clefts; at my school, there's no one. So, at cleft camp, I get to see other people who have clefts like me and I get to have a bunch of fun," said Indira Washburn, a Cleft Camp attendee.

Often, despite one in every 1,600 children being born with a cleft lip with cleft palate in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), those living with a cleft miss out on sharing experiences with each other like stories from the surgery room or what their cleft-specific diets consist of.

"It means a lot to me ... I went into this field, nursing, to work with this [the cleft] population ... I didn't know anyone my age with a cleft 'til I was 35, and so I realized, 'we've got to get kids meeting each other sooner,'" said Amber Kerr, the organizer of Southern Colorado's Cleft Camp. She is also a nurse at Children’s Colorado who grew up with cleft herself.

For many, this experience generates confidence through a variety of outdoor activities like paddleboarding, rock climbing, and ziplining, and snuffs out insecurities and loneliness.

"Challenging yourself, and what being brave looks like, and knowing your limits ... we always try to facilitate a space where they can take those skills and bring them into their life outside of camp," said Emily Paltzer, a staff member at the Breckenridge Outdoor Recreation Center (BOEC), where the camp is hosted.

Cleft Camp includes kids ranging in age from eight to 18-years-old. Many of the developmental and character-building experiences are made possible, not by staff, but through older members of the group who confront topics with the younger kids like bullying.

"So many cleft kids get bullied, especially in elementary school, when kids are just clueless and need to 'be cool' ... And you know, looking different isn't all that cool," said Sean Pittman, a 17-year-old attendee, who plans to volunteer or be a camp counselor in the future.

Southern Colorado's Cleft Camp program is always looking for more people who are willing to donate. Many of the attendees would be unable to attend this camp, given the cost, according to Kerr.

Those interested in donating are able to fill out an online application.

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