By Gary Fitzgerald

Music and laughter break the silence at Camp Breathe Happy.

Fourteen kids rehearse skits and dance to hip-hop inside a barn at the 4-H Patuxent Campgrounds in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. In a few hours, they will perform for their parents, counselors and fellow campers at a graduation ceremony.

For many of the 42 kids in attending Camp Breathe Happy, the fresh air of this tranquil Maryland countryside is in stark contrast to the air they breathe daily in Washington, D.C., just 25 miles away.

Exhaust from cars and trucks, industrial pollution, cigarette smoking and poor indoor air quality due to dust, mold, mice and cockroaches are some of the factors contributing to high asthma rates in the nation’s capital and in inner cities across the country.

Camp Breathe Happy is more than a week-long respite from city life. Respiratory therapists led by Lori Taylor, RRT, who has been with Camp Breathe Happy since its inception, are on hand to help children learn more about asthma and the best way to manage symptoms.

The camp is also an opportunity for kids to be kids – go hiking or canoeing, play basketball, dive down a Slip ‘n’ Slide – without the constant worry of asthma getting in the way.

During skit rehearsals, 8-year-old Lauren Redmond decided she wanted to sing a song in addition to performing in a skit. She recruited a few others to join her.

If Redmond was nervous, it didn’t show. “Life is better when you’re playing with your friends,” she says.

Camp Life

Twelve-year-old Golden Davis says her asthma often flares up during exercise. “If I’m running really fast, I’ll start coughing and feel out of breath,” she says. “It makes my chest tight. So I stop and take a break or go use my medication.”

One camp session focused on how to correctly get medication from inhalers – a serious problem among all people with asthma, not only children. Davis practiced using her inhaler with other campers.

“I know if I don’t breathe in all the medication the right way, it’s not going to help me,” she says.

Campers were also taught to recognize signs and symptoms of an impending asthma flare.

On the second day of camp, 8-year-old Courtney Cooper was alone in her cabin when she started wheezing. She used her inhaler and the wheezing went away a short while later.

The episode reinforced the confidence Cooper feels managing her asthma. She can easily recite her medications and she can identify which to use based on her symptoms: albuterol at the first sign of coughing or difficulty breathing, a corticosteroid for daily control.

Another camp session focused on breathing and relaxation exercises, including “belly breathing,” a technique by which a person inhales through the nose and exhales through the mouth.

Jalen Quigley, 12, demonstrated “belly breathing” by placing one hand on his chest and the other on his belly, then taking a series of slow rhythmic breaths.

“When I feel my asthma, I do this and it’ll help calm down my breathing,” Quigley says. “If it doesn’t, then that’s when I need to use my inhaler.”

Creating ‘A Different Scenario’

Camp Breathe Happy is invaluable for inner-city kids because it shows what life can be like when asthma is well controlled, says Rolando A. Andrewn, president and founder of Breathe DC, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit and host of Camp Breathe Happy.

“For many of these kids, this is their first time at a camp,” Andrewn says. “We are taking them out of their home environment so they can learn about asthma without any distractions. They can fit in with other kids who are experiencing the same thing.”

It’s not just children who need asthma education. A key part of the camp curriculum is raising asthma awareness among parents, too.

On the first day of camp, parents take part in an orientation and then meet with respiratory therapists to discuss potential asthma triggers in the home and how they can better support their child in managing the illness.

“We want to create a different scenario for families, instead of just always going to the emergency room for asthma treatment,” Andrewn says. “We want parents and kids to be involved and engaged so that asthma is well-managed at home and school. It’s a lot to learn, but they need to recognize triggers, understand medications and communicate clearly with doctors, school nurses and family members.”

Breathe DC focuses on helping underserved communities in Washington, D.C. Each camp participant returns home with a peak flow meter (a portable device that monitors how well your lungs are working) and new dust-mite-proof mattress and pillow encasings to reduce exposure to allergens in the bedroom.

After the camp, Breathe DC follows up with kids and parents to see if they retained what they learned and applied it to their daily lives. Breathe DC also works with D.C. Public Schools to reinforce the Asthma Action Plan.

“We connect families with doctors, respiratory therapists and counselors who can help them even after the camp,” Andrewn says.

Reviewed by Andrea Jensen, CHES