Kaidy Kempster and Bella [Isabella] Rex are joined at the hip — they complete each other's sentences, share inside jokes and are often mistaken as twins. Over ten years ago, when Kaidy was 10 and Bella 11, they found each other in neighbouring bunk beds at Arthritis Society Canada's Camp in British Columbia.
Bella says, "The first day at camp, Kaidy and I bonded over how homesick we were. I could not wait for the week to be over to go back home." Little did they know that by the end of the week, they would count down the days until next summer, to attend camp and see each other again.
Living with arthritis as a child
For children with arthritis, isolation is a common experience along with chronic fatigue and pain.
"I was only two years old when I was diagnosed and used to spending a lot of time at the hospital. My friends at school did not get it and I lived with the fact that no one understood my arthritis," says Kaidy.
Bella shares how her diagnosis robbed her of the childhood she was used to, "I was diagnosed when I was ten years old and was used to playing sports competitively until then. The world stopped for me — I was in pain and isolating myself. For my first year of high school, I chose to study in a separate counselling office because I didn't want to be around anyone."
Finding a sense of belonging
Imagine finding a place where everyone gets it – the flare-ups, the setbacks, and the constant visits to the doctor's office. There is fun and community, and most of all you don't have to explain yourself and your illness.
"At the camp, we talk a lot about living with arthritis. That made me more comfortable with myself and talking about my disease," says Bella. "It is astonishing to me that in this lifetime, I have met someone that gives me all this fulfillment and love, and friendship and understanding, compassion as well as the most fun times."
Kaidy shares, "Being at camp changed everything for me. I met other children like Bella, who is now my best friend."
Unlike traditional camps, Arthritis Society Canada's barrier-free camp activities have specialized healthcare staff and activities to accommodate the campers' abilities and emphasize boosting children's self-esteem and confidence.
From campers to counsellors
Bella and Kaidy returned to Camp British Columbia every summer until they turned 17 and have continued to return as counsellors since. Kaidy says, "It's about giving back to the kids because I received so much from it in the form of support, and I want to give other kids the same support I received when I needed it."
Bella says, "It is one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had, and I plan on returning as a counsellor for as long as I can. Camp really brings the kids together, and seeing the impact now and the friendships other children form like we did, is truly special."