At Camp Tiger, the activity schedule is the same for everyone, but the care is custom-fitted.
More than 100 New Orleans-area special-needs children spent five days recently, free of charge, with nearly 300 first- and second-year medical students from LSU Health Sciences Center. They went to the Audubon Zoo, the Aquarium of the Americas, City Park and more before wrapping up with a carnival at the LSUHSC campus. Many of the children would be excluded from such activities without the ample supervision from the med students. Counselors outnumber campers about 2 to 1.
“Every camper is so unique with what they need from their counselors,” Ryan Bolotte, a second-year LSU med student and Camp Tiger’s director, said on day two of the camp from the Jean Lafitte Swamp Tour in Marrero. “How we attend to each camper comes with their diagnosis. We accept children with physical or intellectual disabilities — a ny kind of disabilities. There are no criteria. And it definitely gives the counselors a different perspective.”
One counselor paired with an autistic camper said he and his co-counselor quickly learned how to hold the boy’s attention by talking about his favorite movies and by riding the Ladybug Rollercoaster at City Park — and riding it again, about 15 times in a row.
Another pair of counselors caring for a camper with behavioral issues discovered his love of water and sent him home soaking wet, with his grandmother’s approval. Campers in wheelchairs were flanked by counselors eager to get them as involved as possible in each activity.
The 31st year of Camp Tiger was the top-to-bottom product of the med students’ volunteer efforts. They organized every aspect of the camp, from funding to execution. Bolotte was a counselor last year, but this year as president, he oversaw a list of committees that handled food, recruiting sponsors and an auction that raised more than $80,000 for the camp. The students got a week to rest after classes ended, then returned to volunteer for five nine-hour days.
“It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” said Bolotte, sharing a sentiment that seemed unanimous.
On the last day, as throngs of campers gleefully scurried back and forth between inflatables, games and a petting zoo at the LSUHSC fields, many of the counselors characterized the experience more as a privilege and a learning experience than a duty.
“I love being out here with these kids. It’s a great way to start a medical career,” said Walter Guillory, a first-year student from Lafayette. “I’ve met so many great children, and they’re happy and they’re hilarious. And I think each experience helps you learn how to relate and speak to someone dealing with a different situation.”
Tucker Doiron, a second-year student from Morgan City, said her experience last year at Camp Tiger taught her to be more attentive to her assigned camper’s agenda.
“Some campers are very easygoing and fun-loving and very adaptable. Some have specific needs that are harder to work around,” Doiron said. “My advice is just to let it be. If your kid wants to sit and look at the gorillas all day, then sit and look at the gorillas. If they’re sprinting around the fountain instead of looking at animals, just roll with it. Whatever makes your camper happy, just stick with it.”
Whenever possible, returning campers are placed in the care of their counselors from the previous year to provide a familiar face. Emma Levenson, a second-year student from Slidell, got to reunite with Aidan, her camper from last year who lives with a slight developmental delay.
“My co-counselor last year was Aidan’s counselor the year before, so he’s had a lot of continuity. It’s fun to see how he changes from year to year,” Levenson said.
For his part, Aidan said he enjoyed the roller coasters and sports throughout the week. But like any kid, his favorite part was “when we all got a nice treat.” “Ice cream at the aquarium,” Levenson explained.
Camp Tiger is a social event as much as a learning experience. Dakota, a second-year camper, placed “meeting new friends” at the top of his list of favorite activities, even ahead of laser tag.
“When you talk to their parents in the weeks leading up to camp, they say all the kids want to talk about is ‘When’s Camp Tiger?’ ” said Ross Wiedemann, a second-year student from Mandeville.
Janelle Alvis and her daughter, Avery, of Hammond, just found out about the camp this year. Avery attended, but this was her last year to meet the age requirement (the camp accepts children ages 6 to 15). But Alvis said she’s thrilled her daughter got to experience Camp Tiger at least once.
“There’s not a lot of camps for special-needs children, and she sees her brother go to all kinds of camps every summer,” Alvis said. “But she’s loved every day. She’s very social, so the more people, the merrier. And she loves the attention.”