Searching for community: Breckenridge Cleft Camp brings comfort to youth

Campers gather around to play the "slap hand game" after the Sharing Circle at Cleft Camp, held July 21-24 at the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center. The "slap hand game" is a tradition after the Sharing Circle, which started 15 years ago. The circle gives the campers a safe space to talk about anything and share their experiences.
Children’s Hospital Colorado/Courtesy photo

After lunch, campers Will, Armando, Graham, Luca and Colton slipped away to the front porch. 

Perched on tables, stools, arm chairs and couches, the five boys crowd around a single chess board. The black-and-white checkered tiles are scattered with a mess of original pieces and multicolored plastic chips that have replaced pawns and knights that have been lost among the years of summer camp. 

Cutting through the chatter, Will announces his play. 

Armando, opposite Will, pauses. 

“I don’t know what that means,” he confesses. The room fell silent. 

The four boys listened intently as Will explained what just happened. They only had 15 more minutes for another one of Will’s chess lessons before they had to head out for their 1:30 p.m. rock climbing session. 

Jamie Idelberg is the facilitator and creator of Cleft Camp, a camp hosted at the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center for youth who were born with cleft lip and palate birth conditions. She said this year, the boys have been obsessed with chess.

Idelberg is also the outreach coordinator for the cleft and craniofacial programs at Children’s Hospital Colorado and has been a witness to 23 years of Cleft Camp. Idelberg launched the camp in 1999 to create a safe space for youth with cleft conditions to form a community. 

“To bring these kids together, they can just relax,” Idelberg said. 

Each year, in both the summer and winter, youth who were born with cleft lip and palate birth conditions gather for three days to connect, explore and — simply put — have a great time. 

Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, Idelberg hosted the camp virtually. She sent each camper a box filled with activities and organized scavenger hunts, bingo and group yoga. She did her best to help campers connect over Zoom, but she had low expectations. 

Nevertheless, it was still a success.

“These kids just love having their community — kids that understand what they’ve been through,” Idelberg said. 

One of Cleft Camp’s traditions is an activity called the Sharing Circle. 

In the camp’s main dining area, Idelberg pointed to a spot in the center of the room near the bottom of the cabin’s staircase. 

She said around 15 years ago, an adult with a cleft condition visited the camp to share his cleft journey in front of the group. Idelberg said not only did he share his struggle, but he also reassured campers — things do get better. 

That man’s son, Luca, has now been to multiple Cleft Camps and continues to come back. 

Campers gather together before a hike on Friday, July 22, 2022 at the 23rd annual summer Cleft Camp.
Children’s Hospital Colorado/Courtesy Photo

That first sharing experience created such a safe space and was such a positive experience for the campers that Idelberg created the Sharing Circle. It’s an outlet for campers to share their experiences with the group, both negative and positive. 

“For some kids, it’s like a weight is lifted off their shoulders. … They find commonality,” Idelberg said.

She said during the Sharing Circle, kids will tell their fears about surgery and will mention a future procedure. After the circle is over, many share contact information. Prior to the procedure, campers will reach out with well wishes and comforting words. 

“I’ve had kids tell me, when they’ve gone in for surgery, that friends from camp have texted them.” Idelberg said, her eyelids brimming with tears.

That’s why Idelberg started Cleft Camp — to create a community. In between all of the activities, traditions and programming, however, is when the magic is made. 

Past the commonality of having a cleft lip or palate condition, Katie O’Donnell, one of the counselors at Cleft Camp, said she loves to watch the campers relate over simple, everyday things. 

“They can relate on a deep level with things most other people will never understand,” Katie said. “Then they get to go past that and just get to be kids and be friends with one another, like talking about their favorite books and their favorite games, baseball, and their hobbies.”

O’Donnell said every night, her duty is to put the girl campers to bed. At bedtime, O’Donnell warns that lights are supposed to be out at a certain time.

However, O’Donnell confessed on Friday night, she couldn’t bear to give a second warning. 

Often, she said girl campers will break into two small groups that chat amongst themselves, but on Friday night, when she interrupted them with her bedtime warning, she found all of the girls in a circle, giggling and connecting as a group. 

Instead of her usual disciplined reminders, O’Donnell simply said, “Lights out,” and knew that she wouldn’t be bothering them again. “I’m not coming back,” she joked, “you guys enjoy it.”

Tiahna, one of the campers, said it’s comforting to come to Cleft Camp. 

“When you come here, everyone looks at you with respect, and that’s what I feel like it should be about all the time,” she said. “That’s the beauty of coming to this camp — is we can all relate to each other and get to know each other.”

Cleft lip and palate conditions affect 1 in every 700 children in the U.S. Idelberg will continue to offer the camp, welcoming youth ages 8 to 18 from around the west. This year, there were children from Colorado, Iowa and Wyoming. 

For more information about Cleft Camp, visit Children’s Hospital Colorado, search “Cleft Camp” and click on the first link, “Cleft Camps: Summer and Winter.”

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