- Associated Press - Sunday, July 20, 2014

HOLLAND, Mich. (AP) - The most important thing one kid can say to a new friend with juvenile arthritis is, “‘It’s OK,’ especially if they can’t do everything you can do,” said Madison Schrotenboer, 11.

The Holland girl was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis before she was 2 years old, according to The Holland Sentinel ( http://bit.ly/U1J0ud ).

“She’s never known life without it,” said Amy Schrotenboer, Madison’s mom. Madison’s parents quickly spotted a problem, making doctor visits over a six-week period, to get a diagnosis and start physical therapy.

Amy Schrotenboer is an emergency room technician at Holland Hospital; her husband, Steve Schrotenboer, is a paramedic. Madison, the third of the Schrotenboers’ four children, was just 7 when her family learned about a Lapeer summer camp for children with arthritis or related conditions.

Camp Dakota offers a week of games, crafts and swimming - in a barrier-free facility with some adaptive devices and a 24-hour medical staff to monitor medications and flare-ups.

“Madison really wanted to go, but I wasn’t ready to send my 7-year-old across the state,” said Amy Schrotenboer, adding, Madison “begged and begged and begged” until she convinced her parents to let her go in 2012, when she was 9.

Amy Schrotenboer, a former Camp Sunshine counselor, knows the value of special-interest camps.

“I remember what a blessing it was for me as a counselor and for the kids and their parents,” she said.

Such camps show kids they aren’t alone while creating a social support network.

“Madison really loved it. … She made a lot of friends and came back bubbling about what all she did. She couldn’t wait to go back.”

Madison, heading into a third trip to Camp Dakota, said she likes meeting new friends and “going swimming every day.”

Camp Dakota’s director, Kara Dorda, grew up with arthritis. The 34-year-old mother of two didn’t have the benefit of a camp experience and is thrilled children can share pure fun while learning to cope with the kinds of medical and social issues arthritis can cause.

Madison talks comfortably about what others should know.

Her own friends are very supportive. Arthritis is “not contagious,” she said, “but you can have more struggles, like, walking. Some days it can really bug you and some days you can’t feel it at all.”

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