Camp O: Where Kids with Kidney Disease Belong

Being a kid with kidney disease can be tough. Early on, children with kidney disease realize they’re not like everyone else. People stare at the bulging access in their arm or look uncomfortable when they see the exposed surgical scars across their chest. While other kids can eat and drink until they are content, children on dialysis struggle with thirst because they have to monitor every sip they take. Instead of making new friends at school, they’re sitting in a doctor’s office, hospital or a dialysis facility. They often fall behind in class. Many have lowered self-esteem and struggle to make friends. Having kidney disease can make a child feel like her or she is alone. No one understands what they are going through. That’s why we have Camp Okawehna.


Camp Okawehna is a place where kids with kidney disease belong.  This year, nearly 80 children with kidney disease from city groups around the U.S. arrived on June 3rd at the Cedar Crest Campground in Lyles, Tennessee, to enjoy a week of summer fun. The children ranged in ages from 6 – 18 years old. Some children were on hemodialysis, some needed peritoneal dialysis, and others had a kidney transplant. Yet, all of the children understood that they fit in at camp. No one was ‘different.’ Everyone had a friend to share in the adventures at camp.



campo-17-canoeingEvery day there were new adventures and activities to explore. The activities at camp are designed to allow children from across city groups to get to know each other. Everyone had something fun to do.


Saturday: Campers were assigned to cabins and color competition teams. A pool party complete with s’mores around the bonfire made the evening sweet.


Sunday: Campers received their derby cars to sand and paint in preparation for Tuesday night’s race. They enjoyed their first round of archery, ropes course, canoeing, fishing, and crafts. Then as day gave way to night, the live band began to play and the children danced, played limbo, and sang the night away. The music carried all the way down to the bingo game for those who wanted to rest their feet.



campo-17-carnivalMonday: Circus Mojo provided a delightful start to the morning with their circus demonstration and hands on training. Between the big wheel walking, silk acrobatics, hula hoop spinning and clown antics, the kids were mesmerized. For the rest of the morning the kids rotated between circus training, field games, and the Home Depot sponsored crafts. The evening highlight included on-site carnival, complete with bouncy houses, a dunk tank, fire spinning, glitter tattoos, face painting, popcorn, and cotton candy. When it was time to wind down, everyone gathered together for a movie under the tent.


Tuesday: The morning activities included archery, ropes course, canoeing, fishing, swimming, crafts and field games. The much anticipated evening event was the Pinewood Derby. The six year winning streak for the girls was interrupted by the boys’ victory last year. The girls proudly reclaimed the Pinewood Derby victory for 2017!


Wednesday: Campers who were 16 years and older enjoyed the zip line at Adventureworks. The younger campers participated in field games and crafts. Then, everyone met back at camp for the always entertaining talent show. A non-partial panel of judges scored the acts and awarded individual trophies.  Sarah Adams was awarded first place, Rachel White came in second and Jacqueline Shaw took third.




Thursday: The last full day of camp is always bittersweet. Campers enjoyed a wildlife demonstration. They engaged in the final contests that completed the color competition. In a very close battle for the win, the Red team managed to secure the Color Cup. Then campers enjoyed free time. The boys could be found at the basketball court or by the pool. Most of the girls were preparing for prom by making jewelry, engaging in hair and makeup sessions, and final prom dress fittings. A formal evening meal was served to campers by the medical intern counselors. The centerpiece of the night was a dazzling “Beauty and the Beast” themed prom. DJ E. Lee spun the hits and fulfilled many song requests. The evening ended with awarding of graduate certificates and the announcement of the prom king, Dylan Schott, and queen, Symone Charles.


Every year on the Friday morning of camp, kids gather together and say their goodbyes. There’s sorrow on the faces of many campers. They know they’ve just experienced a special place. It’s not the cabins, the pool, or the woods that make Camp Okawehna so special; it’s the people. The kids relate to one another. They are accepted. The adults reassure the children that they are loved. As they leave camp, they carry with them the joy of new friendships made and the renewed spirit of knowing there are other kids that understand what they are going through. Camp Okawhena is a place where kids with kidney disease belong. They are not alone.

Nearly 100 Children Attend DCI’s Kidney Camp

With on-site dialysis provided, children can explore a full week of exhilarating camp activities.


For 41 years, Camp Okawehna has served kids with kidney disease from all over the country. Campers came from cities around the US including Memphis, St. Louis, Houston, Austin, and Nashville. From June 4-10, nearly 100 campers attended Dialysis Clinic, Inc.’s (DCI), weeklong summer camp, located 50 miles outside of Nashville in Lyles, Tenn.



Some campers from Texas stop and smile on their way to the pool!

Camp Okawehna, often fondly referred to as ‘Camp O’, is unique because hemodialysis and peritoneal dialysis treatments are performed on-site. The 10-station hemodialysis unit in the woods runs three shifts. On the Friday before camp, state inspectors from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services certify the unit for usage, and by Sunday, kids are dialyzing in between activities like archery and kayaking. In addition, the peritoneal dialysis lodge has space for 21 campers to perform lifesaving dialysis while they sleep.


Many children with kidney disease haven’t had the opportunity to participate in an overnight camp because they could not find a camp that offered medical support for their dialysis treatments. Camp O is a place where the medical needs of each camper are addressed and met by trained professionals.


“We want children with kidney disease to come to camp and have the time of their life without worrying about how their medical needs will be met,” said Jessica Emler, DCI Public Information Manager. “This is one week out of the year where these children can truly relax and just be kids.”


Ajecia, a Camp O camper for seven years, receiving hemodialysis treatment. Onsite dialysis is provided by trained medical staff for children who need either hemodialysis or peritoneal dialysis treatment.


While campers get to participate in many events such as an on-site carnival, a circus show, an illusionist act, a derby car competition, a talent show, field games, arts and crafts, swimming, fishing and canoeing, many children say their favorite part of camp is simply meeting other kids just like them.


“When you have kidney disease a lot of people don’t understand. People just don’t get it. When you come to Camp O, it’s refreshing because everyone gets it, everyone just understands,” said Ajecia, 18, a Camp O camper for seven years and a camp graduate this year. “You don’t have to be different; you can just be yourself and show off some of your scars. You can even help somebody else who’s had surgery or does not know how to cope with kidney disease.”



Tristan smiles as he begins to work on his birdhouse during the Home Depot Arts & Crafts project!

Living with kidney disease is not easy. Most children who attend Camp O have had multiple surgeries, require a variety of medications, and maintain a very restricted diet. Often, they miss school because of dialysis and they are sometimes misunderstood by peers because of their differences. Camp O campers find comfort in bonding with other kids who have endured the same trials they have.


According to camp director, Andy Parker, “We have a valuable collection of volunteers who give their time and effort to make sure every aspect of camp is safe, fun and memorable. Our logistics team of volunteers ensures the 100 acres of camp grounds are well maintained and accommodating for each camper, and our kitchen volunteers, with the assistance of a renal dietitian, prepare a kidney friendly menu throughout the week. Each volunteer at camp has a specific role and we all know the focus is on creating a great experience for the kids.”


We would like to give a special thanks to the volunteers, partners and sponsors that helped to make this year’s camp special:

  • Asante Masters Salon at The Mill
  • Cedar Crest Camp Grounds
  • Circus Mojo
  • Home Depot
  • Nashville Adventure Science Center
  • Tennessee State Parks

Camp Okawehna 2015

Campers Discover Their Own Superpowers at Camp Okawehna

What do superheroes and kids with kidney disease have in common? A lot actually. In the world of comics, the evil villain and the powerful superhero struggle through a complex series of events, emotional highs and lows, and finally defy the odds with a superhero saving the day. Every day, Camp Okawehna kids face the evil villain, kidney disease. They endure a wide range of challenges associated with a chronic disease. They take a variety of medications that have unpleasant side effects. They endure multiple surgeries. They are often misunderstood by their peers because of their differences. Life is not easy for these kids. Yet, by tapping into their superpowers, courage, faith, hope, and endurance, our kids are able to beat the odds and defeat the villain that threatens to steal their joy.


In honor of our young warriors, this year’s camp theme, Superheroes, encouraged campers to identify their superpower. From June 6-12 our pint-sized humans took a stand and claimed the victory of laughter, joy and friendship in the face of the villain, kidney disease.


With kidney disease lurking in the recesses of camp, the nearly 100 campers ages 6 to 18 were vigilant in their treatments and attended on-site hemodialysis sessions on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday in the Stix unit, or received their peritoneal dialysis at the lodge while they slept. Transplanted kids kept up with their meds and checked in with their nurse. After the necessary steps were taken to thwart the effects of kidney disease, our campers set out in search of great adventures.


The excitement began after the Saturday afternoon arrival. After check-in, campers reacquainted with old friends, joined new color competition teams, and then ventured off to pool time and a relaxing bonfire.


On Sunday, campers engaged in the first battle of the color competitions, participated in a McKeel Martial Arts demonstration and finished the day with light-hearted dancing and the ever-challenging bingo tournament.


Monday found the campers delighting in the rare talents provided by Circus Mojo, building crafts with Home Depot, and trying their luck at the carnival games.


Tuesday brought the opportunity to explore field games, archery, crafts, and the ropes course along with the highly anticipated Pinewood Derby. We celebrated the new Camp Okawehna Hall of Fame inductees, Chris Lovell and Meredith Vela. Unfortunately, at the end of the derby, boys suffered a devastating blow to their pride as the girls, represented by Jalisha Pegues, claimed victory on the racetrack for the fourth year in a row.


On Wednesday, campers ages 15 and up were invited to race along the zip line course at Adventureworks. After soaring through the trees, campers returned to the big tent to examine some of nature’s most interesting birds with the Natural History Education Company of the Midsouth (NHECM). In the evening, the campers came together for a dazzling evening of talent show performances. The individual talent show winners were: Yemiah Hall, first place; Jaquie Shaw, second; and Daylen Brooks, third.


Thursday was a day of celebration and preparation. It was determined after a week of physical and mental competition among color teams, that the Black team had earned the most points to claim the title of Color Competition Champions. Toward the end of the evening, the campers transformed from casually-clad kiddos into stunning evening gown wearing ladies and well-groomed gentlemen for the 2015 prom. As the evening of dancing and laughter wound down, the highly anticipated crowing of the prom king and queen took place. Ajecia Gerrard was crowned prom queen and Eddy Martinez was crowned prom king. The night ended with the recognition of the graduates Gerard Escobar, Nicolas Huether, Eddy Martinez, and Hector Faudoa.


The conclusion of Camp Okawehna on Friday morning is always bittersweet. Campers exchange information with their new friends and vow to keep up with their old friendships. As campers and counselors share final hugs and tearful goodbyes, we know that our warriors have added a few more superpowers to their arsenal. The week of camp has given them hope and renewed confidence. Every hot day and long night of serving, watching, and providing medical treatment to the campers is made worth it when we see their smiles and we hear their young voices proclaim, “I’ll see you next year.” Indeed, we’ll see you next year Superhero. Stay strong.


We’d like to thank all of the volunteers and donors who contributed to making Camp Okawehna possible. Every talent and gift was appreciated. We were honored to have special guest appearances at camp from: Circus Mojo, McKeel Martial Arts, the Natural History Education Company of the Midsouth (NHECM) and Home Depot. 

Camp Okawehna 2014 

A little girl with black hair sat in a big brown dialysis chair with blood cycling in and out … bright-eyed, laughing and flashing a contagious smile to everyone around her. Yesinia Martinez was almost out of treatment and ready to go play kickball. This uncommon scene was commonplace at Camp Okawehna – atypical children with kidney disease undergoing treatment, only to jump back into typical summer camp activities. There’s no time to be gloomy or downtrodden at Camp O. Everyone has too much fun.


Nearly 100 children converged on the Cedar Crest campgrounds in Lyles, Tennessee, to take part in Camp Okawehna, an annual summer camp for children with kidney disease. Campers arrived at the weeklong camp from Tennessee, Texas, Missouri and South Carolina, for a chance to experience fun, fellowship and a feeling of normalcy that can be scarce back home – a chance to just be a “regular” kid.


Dialysis Clinic, Inc. (DCI) operates the camp each year, which is run by an all-volunteer staff that includes counselors, kitchen staff, activity supervisors, nurses and nephrologists. Because of the camp’s nature, there is a medical team on call 24/7. The camp also includes a cabin set up as a hemodialysis unit and a lodge for campers who do peritoneal dialysis.


This year’s camp theme was cruise ship ports of call. Staff greeted campers by adorning them with Hawaiian leis while wearing sailor hats before issuing them their passports (nametags) and escorting them to a “cruise ship” photo setup. The rest of the first day was spent getting checked in and settled into cabins and relaxing.


Throughout the week, campers had the opportunity to participate in a plethora of activities during free time that included archery, fishing, canoeing and kayaking, a ropes course, sports and arts and crafts. More structured events included a “tacky tourist” luau dance, circus, carnival, science exhibit and bingo. The major events were the pinewood derby, talent show, color completion and prom.


Prior to the start of the talent show, camp staff presented a plaque to the Johnson family that honors Mrs. Nancy Johnson, affectionately known as Camper Nancy. She founded the camp with her husband, Dr. Keith Johnson, and sadly, she passed away this year after a battle with cancer. The arts and crafts center was renamed in her memory, and her plaque will hang in the place in which she spent so much time, teaching and loving the children.


The campers spent hours hand sanding and painting their derby cars before the big race. When the dust settled, the girls stood victorious for the fourth consecutive year. Lydia Tollison was the big winner, much to the boys’ chagrin.


Girls also took the top three spots in the talent show, with Sarah Adams in first place for her freestyle rap.


The color competition was an ongoing series of events that grouped campers from different cabins into teams (red, blue, yellow, orange, green, purple). Events included a canoe race, ropes obstacles, a “Minute to Win it” style game, egg toss, relay races, basketball, kickball, soccer and more. In a major upset, the purple team stormed from last place to win the cup on the final day of the competition.


The week culminated with a cruise-themed prom. Campers found dates, got all gussied up and came together to dance under the lights on the last night of camp. Camp seniors Michael Turner and Caitlin Pendzinski were named prom king and queen. The prom is a special event because, due to medical issues, treatment restraints and school situations (such as homeschooling), this may be the only prom some campers are able to attend.


The next morning, campers and staff packed up and said goodbye before rejoining the ranks of everyday life. For this one week, everyone was the same. No one stared at catheters, fistulas or grafts. Everyone understood why some campers couldn’t swim and why some kids have to skip activities for hours of treatment at a time. At Camp O, everyone gets it. They’ve all been there. For this one week, they can just be “regular” kids.


Thank you to our vendors for your generous financial and product support:

ALSCO (Mike Rigli)

Baptist Hospital Credit Union


Hickman County Fire Department (Bill Henley)

Home Depot (Terry Parker)

Larry Finley, Magicians

Lebanon Kubota (Ryan Ezell)

Mayfield Ice Cream (Mike Potts)

Metro Medical Supply (Robbie Durham)

Music City ANNA

Nashville Party Authority

Patrick and Ellen Donlon


Smart Circle International

Tennessee Kidney Foundation

Texas Children’s Hospital (Meredith Vela)

US National Guard

WR Newman General Contractors

Contribute to Camp O!

Camp Okawehna relies on voluntary donations and fundraising to provide our programs free of charge. We are a non-profit 501(c)(3) charitable organization, and all donations are tax deductible.


The cost for one child to attend camp is $65 (excluding travel expenses). While some children may be able to afford this, others may not. We welcome any donation that will help a child attend camp.


We would be appreciative of any solicitation to your local organizations on the Camp’s behalf for financial support. Kidney Foundations and medical groups are a great place to start.

For more information, please contact:

Andy Parker

Phone: (615) 327-3061

Fax: (605) 341-8814

Email: CampO@dciinc.org