EUNICE — Before Alyssa Humphrey traveled from California to Acadiana to attend Camp Bon Coeur, a cardiac camp for kids, the 19-year-old said she felt like she was the only person with her condition.
“I’d never really met anyone who had a heart defect,” said Humphrey, who was born with a Ventricular Septal Defect and a sub-Atrial Septal Defect, meaning she was born with holes in her heart.
She first attended the camp at the age of nine. Ten years later, Humphrey credits the camp as a major factor in her decision to move here to attend the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
Humphrey, who now serves as a counselor-in-training, says Camp Bon Coeur introduced her to others who had gone through the same types of surgeries, and who shared the same kinds of scars.
“I think that’s the best thing about it because you don’t want to go through life thinking you’re alone,” she said.
Since 1985, Camp Bon Coeur, or Camp Good Heart, has been offering kids with congenital heart defects an opportunity to enjoy a summer camp experience, one where “they’re just a kid,” program director Ben Smith said.
“What Camp Bon Coeur gives them is a second home where they get to come here and forget about it,” Smith said.
Ideally, Smith said, the camp helps the kids grow and instills within them the confidence to “realize that their heart defect doesn’t define them, that they define their own lives.”
The 10-day camp is open to kids ages 7 to 16 and is held at the Acadian Baptist Center in Eunice, which offers a retreat-like setting complete with a dormitory, infirmary, air-cond-
itioned gymnasium, swimming pool and outdoor track.
A minimum of two nurses are present around the clock to ensure the campers remain safe during their stay.
About 30 children attended this year’s camp, which began Aug. 5 and ended Sunday.
On Thursday, the camp was trying out a new event in the form of a day-long competition modeled after TV’s “The Amazing Race.”
Smith called it “the Most Amazing Spectacular Camp Race Ever.”
Activities included Frisbee golf, archery, cast-netting, a kayak course, egg relay, snorkel slalom, mini-golf and paper airplanes. The activities are contact-free and are toned down to ensure the kids remain hydrated and moving at a safe pace, Smith said.
Fifth-year camper Tristan LaPorte’s team was in first place Thursday morning.
The 15-year-old had the first of two heart surgeries at the age of four for an aortic valve deficiency. He said the camp opened his mind to possibilities he might have thought were impossible.
“It’s amazing,” LaPorte said. “It’s really a life-changer.”
LaPorte called himself “one of the lucky ones” because his heart condition doesn’t stop him from participating in noncontact sports like baseball and basketball.
Susannah Craig, camp director, said she gets her inspiration from kids like LaPorte and 9-year-old Justin Mata, who had open heart surgery six weeks ago but made sure to schedule it early enough so it wouldn’t interfere with camp.
There are also 11-year-old Cory White, who had a heart transplant at age 4 and was here from St. Louis celebrating his first year at the camp; and 10-year-old Taylor Trahan, who has had four heart surgeries for a defect that caused the left side of her heart to be underdeveloped, but who loves camp because it lets her do things she normally wouldn’t be able to do.
“It’s an amazing place,” Craig said. “I get more from the kids than they get from me, I think. There’s just a lot of growth and a lot of excitement watching them change from year to year.”
Craig says it’s hard not to reevaluate your own life after looking at these kids and watching how outgoing and excited they are in spite of the hardships they’ve endured.
“It just makes me realize that I need to not sweat the small stuff because there’s a lot of things in life that are more important,” Craig said.
Camp Bon Coeur also offers a Family Camp in March, which is open to campers of any age and their families.
For the summer camp, first-time campers come free, while repeat campers are asked to pay or help the Heart Camp raise $500 toward the $1,500 cost of sending a kid to camp.
The camp holds fundraisers year-round to help offset the costs.
Craig says she’d like to see the camp take in up to 50 kids, which would still keep it at a level where each kid would be known individually by counselors and staff.
Craig said she hopes families see it for what it is: “a great opportunity” that allows their “kids to grow and increase their confidence levels.”
At Camp Bon Coeur, campers need not worry, Humphrey says, “because everyone here goes at the same pace.”