Weeklong Summer Camp Brings Joy to Children with Chronic Kidney Disease

Dr. Samuels and other clinicians posing as super heroes.

Camp Shining Stars, a week-long summer camp led by Joshua Samuels, MD, brings superheroes and legends to life to create extraordinary memories for kids with chronic kidney disease.

Clad in elaborate Asgardian armor and armed with the enchanted hammer, Thor’s crimson cape rippled behind him as he marched to the center of the stage. But this Thor was missing something.

“Were you expecting someone with long blonde hair?” he asked the children and teenagers who gathered for orientation at Camp Shining Stars. The crowd erupted in laughter.

Joshua Samuels, MD, professor in the Department of Pediatrics, may not be the real Thor, but he is still a superhero to these campers. For one week every August, he offers nearly 70 children with chronic kidney disease the opportunity to build friendships and memories at Camp Shining Stars.

Our kidneys give us the ability to filter out wastes and excess fluids. But individuals with chronic kidney disease require constant monitoring and treatment to halt the development of end-stage kidney failure, which is fatal without artificial filtering from dialysis or a kidney transplant.

Expanding the Horizon

Held at the barrier-free Camp For All in Burton, Texas, campers can glide down a zipline, navigate the ropes course, gallop on horseback, and much more. Camp For All provides barrier-free facilities and programming for more than 11,000 campers of all abilities each year. Physicians, nurses, and dietitians from McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, UT Physicians and Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital meet all the medical needs at Camp Shining Stars—including dialysis—allowing the campers to focus on fun. And Samuels ensures there is no shortage of it.

Each day, he transforms into a new character based on the camp’s yearly theme. While he kicked off the 2019 theme of myths and legends as the mighty Thor, campers awoke the next day to find their doctor had grown into the larger-than-life Paul Bunyan.

“Once the kids laugh at me, I’m no longer this scary doctor,” Samuels says. “It’s a chance for me to help these children expand their horizons and practice becoming independent.”

While the campers build lifelong friendships and learn to be independent, students from McGovern Medical School learn to walk in the shoes of their future patients. Third-year medical students going through their pediatrics clerkship volunteer as counselors to facilitate the fun and gain a deeper appreciation of the challenges faced by children with chronic kidney disease.

Tori Lehrmann, a 2019 medical student counselor, cherished the opportunity to help campers grow. “My cabin had a young girl who would isolate herself because she assumed that her medical challenges would prevent her from enjoying the activities,” says Tori. “Her peers and I continued to encourage her, and by the end of camp, she had conquered the ropes course and participated in a talent show on stage.”

“The beauty of Camp Shining Stars is many of our campers join us every year from ages seven to 17, so we get to see them grow up into confident young adults,” explains Samuels, who sees patients at several UT Physicians pediatric clinics in Houston and Katy. “Some campers even return as counselors to pass on their experience.”

Powering The Stars: Crowdfunding Rockets Camp Shining Stars Above the Clouds

In July 2019, Samuels launched a crowdfunding campaign to help create more opportunities for children with chronic kidney disease to attend Camp Shining Stars. Gathering support from friends, family, colleagues, and patients, the campaign raised $15,000.

“Camp Shining Stars would not be possible without the generosity of donors,” says Samuels. “These funds will ensure our campers can continue building life-changing experiences and lifelong friendships.”

Each year, Camp Shining Stars requires approximately $40,000 to support about 70 campers and 20 medical professionals, medical students, and staff members. Contributions to the crowdfunding campaign help cover costs such as medical supplies, activities, and transportation for campers.

To support the 2020 Camp Shining Stars campaign, visit go.uth.edu/campshiningstars.

Written by
John Kriescher, Office of Development