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By Jennifer Iscol

On March 30, 2020, Camp Celiac director and nurse Molly Stone was caring for Covid-19 patients on the night shift in a hospital in Orlando, Florida, when she got the news that Camp Celiac at Camp Arroyo would be canceled for summer 2020. Our camp partner, The Taylor Family Foundation, canceled all its summer camps by necessity. It was one of the earliest camps that canceled and our board, camp staff and families were deeply disappointed. However, the early notice gave us plenty of time to reinvent Camp Celiac as a virtual camp. 

Molly was already deep into planning our regular camp, but she switched gears and let her imagination fly. She reached out to assistant director Lindsay Swanson, who is a preschool teacher in the Bay Area, and to the young adults and teens whose volunteer participation had allowed camp to flourish for 13 years. 

Molly and Lindsay were worried that kids would be too burned out by virtual school to want to jump back on Zoom for summer camp. Also, as Lindsay said, “I’m not gonna lie, I was nervous at first about how we would bring the energy and excitement of camp to Zoom.” Molly said, “We couldn’t fall back on our regular camp schedule and activities. However, that made it an exciting challenge to come up with new ideas. We had to rework camp traditions.”

Thanks to camp leadership and volunteers, Virtual Camp Celiac 2020 was wonderfully successful. Camp week was packed with live events daily and campers had access to videos prerecorded by counselors for more fun activities they could do when they liked. Campers reconnected with old friends and made new ones. New participants were warmly welcomed and initiated into camp traditions. They made friends they’ll see when in-person camp resumes. Kids participated as much or as little as they liked, using the modality where they felt most comfortable (live video interaction, chat, activities undertaken at home, etc.)

Recreating camp as a virtual event was a heroic effort. Molly and Lindsay were on Zoom eight or nine hours every day of camp with few breaks. Molly, who worked her full-time night-shift schedule around camp without taking days off, said that by the end of each day, “I was more wiped out electronically than physicially; I didn’t want to stare at a screen anymore.” Lindsay said it was “almost as exhausting as being there in person,” and that she started each day “sleepy-eyed and drinking coffee as usual for camp.” She said it takes “150%” to convey everything in just your face and voice that you would normally convey in person.” Still, she said, she “felt the magic of camp” and it was worth it.

Jackie Corley, Camp Celiac’s co-founder and coordinator, highlighted the importance of the camp’s continuity: “While we were saddened to not be able to host Camp Celiac in person, we were heartened to see how the Camp Celiac spirit and camaraderie flourished in the virtual medium. Hosting Virtual Camp Celiac will help us resume in-person Camp Celiac in 2022 (hopefully) without missing a beat.”

The feedback from virtual camp participants was heart warming. A selection of the “Thank You” notes submitted daily are below. One note that was received encapsulates our thoughts and wishes: “You’re all going to be okay. I love you, and thank you for being here.”

How did we do it and what was it like? See the details below!

Activities

Molly led many weeks of brainstorming and online research to winnow down a list of possible activities. Lindsay said, “Molly’s plans scared me, honestly, and they all worked! Also, a lot of the time we just winged it – we didn’t plan what we would say and it felt like we were up there at camp on the stage in the dining hall.” Lindsay, already comfortable on Zoom after months of teaching online, often appeared as her mustachioed and flamboyant “Steve Harvey” character (comedian and host of Family Feud).

Daily activities were a mix of several live events on Zoom (all-camp and cabin hangouts) plus prerecorded videos. Counselors created entertaining videos and instructional ones on dance, crafts, cooking and more that could be watched at any time during camp on Youtube. (Activities and counselor videos are listed below.) Campers submitted talent videos, which were woven together for an all-camp Talent Show. 

We also provided two medical Q&A Zoom sessions with our camp doctors Doug Corley, MD, PhD, MPH, and Amy Burkhart, MD, RD, and Zena Harvill, RN, NP, of UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland. Children and parents submitted questions in advance or on the Zoom chat function, ranging from safe dietary practices to Covid-19 risks for individuals with celiac disease.

Participants

The virtual participants included about 100 campers (ages 9-15), 10 junior counselors (ages 16-17) and 30 adult counselors. Our beloved former camp director, Richard Bernstein popped in for guest appearances and his specialty, a lanyard-making session.

Virtual Camp Celiac was free to make it as accessible as possible. A supply list for baking, craft and game participation was sent to camp families, along with an offer of free supplies as needed. Thanks to a generous grant from the Moca Foundation, every participant received a free Camp Celiac T-shirt with the winning logo from our design contest winner, camper Audrey Winsor.

We usually have two sessions of three nights each. For Virtual Camp Celiac, we combined the sessions to make one seven-day camp, which the kids loved. Some of the virtual “cabins” were larger than our usual cabins, but still organized by age and gender.

Safety and logistics

Our board developed new policies and forms, and board member and volunteer IT consultant Danyel Areff adapted the camp registration site to work for virtual camp. He worked with his teens, daughter Cassie and son Jace, to create a virtual “Thank You Jar” of notes that were read daily as a morning camp activity.

Each camp event had its own link, and links for each day were sent the prior evening. Participants were checked into each event individually for security. Zoom security features worked perfectly and there was no “Zoombombing.” All Zoom events, breakout rooms and chats were supervised by the camp directors or two adult counselors. The participants’ online behavior was appropriate and respectful, as required by commitment during registration, and no form of discipline was needed.

Social media

We had strict social media consents and policies to protect participants’ well-being, safety and privacy while allowing limited, thoughtful sharing for families and the community to enjoy. Only content that leadership posted on our Camp Celiac Facebook page could be shared. 

Activities and videos list

Live events:

Daily Thank You Jar (reading of thank you notes submitted by camp participants online); cabin hangouts (opened with ice-breaker games); daily themes: Sports, Dress-Llike-Your-Counselor, Wear-Your-Camp-Shirt, Pajamas, Neon, Beach Day, Outer Space; Bingo; Minute-to-Win-It games; Scavenger Hunt; Online Multiplayer Games; Camp Counselor Hunt (using their baby pictures); Dance Parties; Skit Night; Talent Show; Live Q&A for campers and parents with the camp doctors and a GI nurse.

Prerecorded videos on Youtube (counselors created them for campers to do any time):

Camp songs, Lanyards, Hair Braiding, Dance Class, Cinnamon Rolls, Friendship Bracelets, Coloring, Shoes, Bag Ice Cream, Blondies, Crepes, Finger Knitting, Mask Making, Pancakes, Birthday Cake and Cupcakes, Cream Puffs, Card Tricks, Kitchen Chemistry, Flexibility Class, S’Mores, Muddy Buddies, Gluten-Free Grocery Shopping, Oatmeal Bars, Peanut Butter Cookies, Hydration and Hygiene Tutorials, videos and slide shows from past camps, and a “delivery” video that appeared when campers submitted a “thank you” note.

Thank You Jar

A sampling of daily submissions to our Thank You website (minors’ names removed):

“Thank you for making sure that everyone in our cabin felt included and was having fun!!”

“To all the first time campers–welcome home”

“Wow! I had such a fun experience that I would have never thought could happen virtually. I’m currently crossing my fingers that I will get the in person experience of Celiac Camp next year! I’m so thankful to have gotten to be a part of this. Also Please keep the cooking and activity videos up because I didnt have time to try everything and I really want to! Thank you all for making me smile, laugh, and feel so included in this community.”

“Thank you Molly, Lindsay, all of the counselors, junior counselors and assistant counselors, and campers for making this week so so so special! Although it was my first time at camp and i know camp in person is much different, I’m so glad i could be lart of this awesome week!!!”

“Thank u molly for working on the frontlines everyday for us campers thank u molly and lindsay for having such a great camp this week and thank u for the awesome camp dance last night and thank u for the great food recipes”

“Thank you Julie for the cream puff video, they were delicious!”

“Thank you to Kym and the camp dads for still making everyone laugh with your creative and hilarious skits, even virtually! we appreciate you all so much!”

“Shout out to AG and Kristen and Daniel for awesome vibes during our camp dance party.”

“thanks for making this AMAZING camp happen!”

“Thank you everyone for making each of us feel included in all of the activities! Having a little community of celiacs is really awesome!!!”

“Thank you to all of the Celiac Camp staff for putting this together. It is my first year and its really fun even though its online. I can’t wait to go to camp next year! Also thank you to Steve Harvey for stopping by in Cabin E’s meetup.”

“Thank you to all of the counselors who filmed youtube videos for us to watch (especially Christina with the cinnamon rolls. They were so good!).”

“Thanks for making this best summer ever!”

“Dear whoever created all the slideshows for when we are getting ready to do the zooms, thanks! They are super entertaining and remind me of camp!”

“Hi it is my first time participating at camp celiac and I was shy. I just want to thank all the kids at the dance party for talking to me and making me feel happy and included.I also want to thank all the counselors for doing the best they can to make year 2020 virtual celiac camp really fun. So we have the same experience than we would at camp! Thanking you lots!“

“thank you to all of the new campers for being brave and joining us this year”

“Thank you for setting up camp during quarantine. Even though it’ll be different, it’s still great to see other people like us!”

Virtual Camp Celiac 2021
We are offering a second year of Virtual Camp Celiac for summer 2021. To make the fun last longer and make it more manageable for counselors and directors who are working full-time or studying, camp is during monthly two-hour sessions on Saturday evenings over five months. It will include old favorites plus innovative new activities such as a virtual gluten-free bakery tour. As always, Camp Celiac is free to attend. Registration is at http://celiaccamp.org February 22-March 14, 2021.