Hand to Hold's Official Blog: Written by Parents for Parents

Another First: Sending Our Son to Sleepaway Camp

Jackson at CampSchool is out!  As a kid, I can remember anxiously awaiting the last bell and looking forward to pool parties, trips to the beach and my mom’s homemade ice cream!  I also looked forward to going to camp.  For years, I have wanted to introduce that time-honored tradition to my own kids, but I was just not sure my micro-preemie, who will turn 13 in August, was ready.

I see camp as a rite of passage for kids – an opportunity to learn independence, meet new friends, practice social and life skills while having fun singing campfire songs, eating s’mores and canoeing around a lake.  And this year, we finally felt our young man was ready—and so were we.

But the anxiety I experienced while helping my son pack his trunk and label his belongings was palpable.  I felt many of the same emotions and heard the same questions repeated in my brain as I did his first day of pre-school, kindergarten and again when entering middle school:  Will he make new friends? Will he fit in? Can he keep track of his belongings and follow directions? How do I let go?

On the long drive to Camp Huawni in East Texas, I wore a brave face.  I would sneak quick glances of him in the back seat listening to his iPod and playing on his phone.  When did he get so big?  As we drove through the main gate my heart began to beat a little faster, and I felt an almost full body tremor.  But I was determined not to shed a tear.  We headed bravely into the dining hall to check in.

Filling out the final medical form I wanted to tell the nurse his long medical history, but I knew there was no need.  The respiratory issues he had through his first years of life are long gone.  His pediatrician assures me his heart is strong and multiple electrocardiograms (EKGs) through the years confirm there is nothing to worry about.

So we made our way to his cabin, met his counselors and began to say our goodbyes.  Counselor Patton assured me Jackson would be in good hands and would be required to keep his bunk and belongings in good condition and would even be helping sweep the cabin each day.  I froze!  Should I tell him that sweeping is very difficult for Jackson?  His gross and fine motor coordination and process planning challenges make some everyday activities (like closing a Ziploc bag or folding a blanket) almost impossible.  There were those questions again, “Will the kids make fun of him?”  No, I decided.  I would not say a thing.  Let Jackson do his best.

We said our quick goodbyes.  At 12, boys don’t want their parents and sisters making a fuss.  As we exited the gate and began the long drive home, my husband and I were silent.  I knew we were both struggling.  It is a fine line between protecting and over-parenting.  We want Jackson to have every opportunity to develop into a confident and capable young man. We just can’t help but see him as the vulnerable one pound baby that struggled for life for months, required multiple surgeries and endured years of occupational, speech and physical therapy to hurdle the many challenges that often plague preterm infants.

I won’t lie, it was a long and difficult week.  My emotions were all over the map.  I was less than productive at work and spent hours logging onto the camp Website in hopes of spotting Jackson in a picture or two.  I also read and re-read the daily Camp Director blog that catalogued their awesome week.  Knowing that we would not be able to communicate all week, I asked Jackson to please smile and make a peace sign with his fingers to let us know he was having fun if he were to have his photo taken for the Website.  I can’t describe the joy and pride I felt when on the third day a picture confirmed what I knew all along….my young man is ready for all that life has to offer!  And his dad and I are even considering a two-week session next year!

Kelli Kelley About Kelli Kelley

Founder, Hand to Hold - Kelli D. Kelley (TX) is the mother of two preemies – Jackson born at 24 weeks in 2000 and Lauren born at 34 weeks in 2003. She is the founder of Hand to Hold, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated providing support and navigation resources to families who had a preemie, who had a child in the NICU or with a special healthcare need, or who experienced loss. She has experienced the emotional fallout and isolation that having preemies often causes. As a direct result, Kelli has dedicated her life to offering hope and sanctuary to all parents who have had similar journeys. Contact her via email.


  1. Melissa D says:

    Thank you for this, Kelli. It’s been an interesting week since Addie’s birthday–how in the world is our tiny baby FIVE years old? We’ll be reaching all sorts of new milestones this year, and it’s helpful to remember that other preemie parents have walked our road already.

    • Melissa,
      Oh no, did I miss Addie’s birthday??? When was it? I need to get it on my calendar! Please give her a big hug from me and tell her I miss her and am so proud of her!

  2. Kelli, it was hard sending our first two sons to camp, and they were full-term. When the time comes for our preemie, I suspect I will feel many of your emotions. I am keeping this post when that time does come!

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