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Therapeutic camps a life-changing experience for children and nurse volunteers

At the Over the Wall camps children with life-limiting conditions get to fulfil some dreams and have a lot of fun. For the nurse volunteers who support them, including the chief nursing officer for England, it is a chance to broaden their experience and get back in touch with what they love most about nursing

At the Over the Wall camps children with life-limiting conditions get to fulfil some dreams and have a lot of fun. For the nurse volunteers who support them, including the chief nursing officer for England, it is a chance to broaden their experience and get back in touch with what they love most about nursing 


Almost 700 children attended Over the Wall’s camps in the UK last year.

In her day job, Jane Cummings is chief nursing officer for England, with all the duties and high-level meetings that involves.

But when she dons her pink volunteer T-shirt at a camp run by a children’s charity, ‘high-level’ is more likely to involve a zip line or climbing wall than nursing policy or meetings.

Having fun

Professor Cummings has been a volunteer at the charity Over the Wall since 2007, attending a weekend or week-long camp most years and providing clinical support to the campers, all of whom are children or young people with serious health challenges.

And she loves it. ‘Watching the children and having fun with them – it’s just phenomenal,’ she says.

‘The camp makes a huge difference to them. They often arrive looking very uncertain, without much confidence. But by the time they leave they may have been kayaking, swimming, wall climbing, or singing or doing arts and crafts.

‘There’s a lot of singing at camp, and sometimes the children can be self-conscious, but by the time they leave they will spontaneously break out into song.’

Over the Wall is a national children’s charity that provides free therapeutic recreation camps for children with life-limiting illnesses and their families. The aim is to help children and teenagers to stretch their boundaries in a safe environment and reach beyond the perceived limitations of their condition.

Relying on volunteers

The camps rely on qualified volunteers such as Professor Cummings to provide 24-hour clinical support (see box).

The charity was founded in the UK in 1999 by businessman Joe Woods, who had previously organised trips for British children to visit a similar therapeutic camp in the US, set up by the late Hollywood actor and philanthropist Paul Newman.

The UK charity is expanding all the time: in 2012, fewer than 400 children and young people took part, last year it was almost 700. There are plans to reach 1,000 campers by 2020.

Children’s nurse Lauren Doyle began volunteering with Over the Wall three years ago.

‘It was beyond my expectations,’ she says. ‘I hadn’t realised how much fun camp is and how interesting. There were so many different conditions, and so many needs we had to meet to make sure campers could have the best possible time.’

‘Sometimes the children can be self-conscious, but by the time they leave they will spontaneously break into song’

Jane Cummings, chief nursing officer

The sheer diversity of the clinical team is beneficial, she adds. ‘Everyone has something different to bring to make sure that the camper receives holistic care. And we can all learn from each other.’

This learning isn’t confined to the clinical. ‘Face painting is a big part of camp,’ she laughs. ‘My artistic skills aren’t the best but I’m getting better.’

Over the years Ms Doyle has worked with different age groups, starting from younger children and leading up to those in their mid to late teens. ‘Last year I worked with teenagers aged 15 to 17. Adolescence is a hard time for anyone, but these teenagers have a lot to deal with. Working with them is so rewarding. They form such a bond with each other.’

Ms Doyle is an advanced nurse practitioner on the medical rota at Heart of England NHS Foundation Trust in the West Midlands, working in paediatrics and neonatal services.

Wider experience

Most of her professional experience is with acute cases, while camp has brought her into contact with a wider range of children with longer-term needs. ‘I’ve become more confident working with children who have chronic conditions,’ she says.

‘Camp is a life-changing experience for the children, but it’s been life-changing for me as well. Working with the campers is one of the best weeks of the year.’

Natalie Marshall began volunteering with Over the Wall in 2010 and since last year has worked full-time for the charity as its nursing director. It was a big decision for her as she loved her previous jobs, which included being a children’s Macmillan nurse, but she hasn’t looked back.

‘When I first experienced camp I was so impressed at the difference it made in kids,’ she says. ‘I had no idea what to expect – I thought the kids would be really sick, but with a lot of them you’d actually have no idea that they had an illness. The attitude of the camp is very can-do. These kids hear “no” a lot. At camp we try to get away from saying no – provided it’s safe, of course.’

She says one camper, a 15-year-old with intractable epilepsy who had several seizures a day that were treated by swiping his chest with a magnet, was desperate to do an aerial assault course. ‘He had a nurse on either side carrying the magnet in case he had a seizure,’ she says. ‘He absolutely adored it.’

‘Camp is a life-changing experience for the children, but it’s been life-changing for me as well’

Lauren Doyle, children’s nurse

Volunteering also expanded her own clinical experience and expertise. ‘I’m an oncology nurse and I used to be terrified of diabetes care. I didn’t understand it at all but I’m pretty good at diabetes now.’


Natalie Marshall (bottom right)
is nursing director for the charity

Similarly, she adds, nurses gain skills in areas such as bladder washes and colostomy care.

Nurses tend to volunteer in their own time for the camps, which run from a long weekend to a week and have different focuses. For example, there are camps where siblings can come along, camps for families and, as of last year, weekend camps for people with allergies. A full list, including dates, can be found on the Over the Wall website.

More enthused

But Ms Marshall points out that employers as well as volunteers benefit. ‘We do a questionnaire, and every single clinical volunteer has said it reminds them of why they do their job. They go back more enthused.’

Professor Cummings can also point to campers who have made an impression on her – such as the boy who thought he was afraid of heights and who was then thrilled by a ride on a zip line. But she admits that she gets a lot out of it too.

‘It’s really good for me,’ she says. ‘I’m there as “nurse Jane”, not as the chief nursing officer for England. It means I spend time getting back to my roots as a hands-on nurse, working alongside other nurses who are doing that job day in and day out, from lots of different backgrounds, supporting each other. It’s hard work, but it’s great fun as well.’

How to volunteer

About 700 people volunteer with Over the Wall each year. These include ‘clinical volunteers’ – nurses and doctors who support the medical needs of campers.

These roles, part of the camp’s medical team known as the Beach Patrol, involve providing care, for example giving medications, overnight nasal or PEG feeds, changing dressings and monitoring blood sugar levels. Previous experience of these tasks is not required, as training is provided.

Clinical volunteers also spend time with their group of campers participating in activities ranging from swimming and kayaking to drama.

Applications

Applications are invited from children’s nurses who have been qualified for a minimum of 18 months, and adult or learning disability nurses who have been qualified for at least two years.

Nurses must be registered with the Nursing and Midwifery Council, hold professional indemnity insurance and have current, valid life-support training.

Applications to take part in this year’s camps close on 31 March. For more information, including how to apply, go to the Over the Wall website, email volunteering@otw.org.uk or phone 02392 477110.

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