Published: Aug. 20, 2023, 12:01 p.m. | Nyah Marshall | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com | Photo Credit: Alexandra Pais
When Payton Hanna became a Hope With Heart camper in 2012 at age 13, it was the first time she met children living with a heart condition — just like her and her brother. Now, the 24-year-old travels over three hours from her home in Maryland to New Jersey every summer to volunteer her time as an activities director for the Warren County-based camp for children with congenital heart disease.
Like Hanna, many Hope With Heart volunteers started their journey with the nonprofit as young campers. And now, as adults, they are in camp counselor roles, connecting with kids facing experiences similar to their own childhoods.
“I think the biggest thing is that they find a newfound confidence while being here,” said Corter, who has been a part of Hope With Heart since 2017.”
“The counselors are what make Hope With Heart,” Hanna said. “And so, being able to become a counselor and then in turn give the younger kids the same experience that I had as a camper is what makes it all worth it.”
For over 30 years, June Griffin, the president and founder of Hope With Heart, and its camp directors have been running a free, weeklong overnight summer camp for children 7 to 17 years old with heart disease or heart defects.
On their fourth day of camp this month at a private, scenic campground spanning over 100 acres in Warren County, kids participated in rope courses, experiencing the thrill of a Tarzan swing and walking across a tightrope. Other campers personalized their own Build-A-Bears in a nearby cabin.
Counselors cheered on campers as many of them faced their fears and tried the rope course activities for the first time.
Leading the Build-A-Bear workshop was counselor Ant Lazaro, who guided campers in a “heart ceremony.” Participants selected satin hearts, rubbed it on their foreheads, danced with it and gave it a kiss before placing it inside their bear.
“I think the important part is that all the kids are the same here,” said Griffin as campers swung from a rope in the background. “So, they all have the same struggles and they all have the same needs and cares.”
Griffin started the organization 34 years ago after her son, who was born with congenital heart defects, died when he was just a few months old. In lieu of flowers, Griffin asked for donations to start the camp, she said.
Year after year since, Hope With Heart has been able to raise money through events and donations from the community to offer the six-night, seven-day summer camp free of charge for hundreds of children.
The annual Hope With Heart camp, originally based in New York, is now in its second year at its new home in New Jersey. Camp officials asked that the exact location of the Warren County campground not be named to protect the campers’ privacy.
This year, the camp welcomed 40 participants from around the country. Half of the campers were first-timers.
Applications for campers open every year in February, organizers said.
Along with having pool time every day, the activities include a talent show, a movie night and two offsite trips. This month, participants went bowling and to a nearby waterpark, officials said.
Every year, the camp’s activities and decorations are themed. This summer’s theme was Super Mario, said Jamie Corter, Hope With Heart’s activities and social media director.
“We don’t have them bring their cell phones or electronics to camp, so it really encourages them to be present, be in the moment and to participate in the activities,” said camp director Alissa Gretina.
What separates the nonprofit from the other few specialized camps in the country is that parents don’t have to ensure that their child is at a certain level of health to participate in the program, officials said. Hope With Heart accepts children at every point along the heart condition spectrum, from moderate to severe.
“We’ve taken kids that had transplant surgery, multiple transplants and not that far out too, like a couple weeks,” Griffin said. “Each kid here is individual and their needs are met,” she added.
To ensure everyone is accommodated, the camp’s staff has a team that includes a pediatric cardiology doctor and nurses that handle medical issues.
But, the medical supervision is behind the scenes so children aren’t constantly reminded of their conditions, camp officials said.
“I think the biggest thing is that they find a newfound confidence while being here,” said Corter, who has been a part of Hope With Heart since 2017.
During the summer program, campers start to come out of their shells once they realize they’re in a safe space, she said.
Campers comfortably reveal their surgery scars while swimming in pools after realizing other fellow campers and counselors bare the same scars, the nonprofit’s directors said.
Campers also start to feel comfortable enough to open up about their hospital stays and the medical obstacles they’ve overcome, said Gretina who has been with Hope With Heart for 23 years.
Her brother, Nick, was the first camper ever signed up for the summer program in 1989, she said.
“We’re trying to make them — not completely forget, because they’re never going to forget — but we want to make them, just be kids and just have fun,” Gretina said. “That’s it, that’s the point of this week, to just let them be kids.”
About Hope With Heart
Hope With Heart is a 501c3 organization founded in 1989 to provide an enriching summer camp experience for children diagnosed with congenital heart disease. The Board of Trustees includes a pediatric cardiologist who oversees the camp. Daily camp operations are facilitated by the camp director, two cardiac care nurses, two activities coordinators and a team of seasoned counselors. Hope With Heart is a place for you to be included.
Jamie Corter, Activities Director and Public Relations Manager
Alissa Gretina, Camp Director
George Kipel, Camp Cardiologist