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Thursday, March 23, 2023

Camp helps children gain self–confidence through activities

He may wear scrubs instead of a cape, but to his patients and their family members, Dr. Paul Dell is a superhero.

Dell, a hand surgeon at Shands at UF, and his wife Ruthie co-founded Hands to Love's Hand Camp to help children emotionally cope with their congenital hand condition.

The ninth annual Hand Camp, themed "Marvel-At-Us," took place Friday through Sunday, and gave kids the opportunity to participate in activities they might shy away from elsewhere.

Kids cheered each other on as they tackled rope climbing, swimming and archery.

Guest speaker UF football coach Urban Meyer surprised the group, signing more than 300 autographs and distributing autographed posters of Tim Tebow.

Meyer was introduced by camper Jacob Rodriguez, 9, who compared the Gator Nation's superhero coach to his personal superheroes, the Dells.

"All this was started by two special people to me, Dr. Dell and his wife Ruthie," Rodriguez said. "They bring many people together to make this a place where everyone can be themselves and happy."

Since its creation in 2000, the camp has focused on helping patients adjust to a congenital condition occurring in one of every 5,000 births in which a person is born with abnormalities of the hands, arms or fingers. Campers, between 7 months old and 13 years old, made superhero capes and superman masks and participated in activities such as archery and rock climbing. The program aims to provide campers with self-confidence through activities designed for their success, Dell said.

"They're able to see other kids with the exact diagnosis," he said. "That's so important."

There are few people who understand the camp's impact better than 19-year-old Jackie Kenyon.

Since birth, she underwent seven reconstructive surgeries to increase functionality of her fingers.

"You know in your head you're not the only person with a difference, but it's hard to deal with because you never see it," Kenyon said.

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For her, it's the uncomfortable everyday occurrences that she has to overcome, such as handing money to a cashier.

"It's the little things that build up," she said. First attending as a camper, then as a counselor, Kenyon now uses her bad experiences to mentor other children and their family members.

"The good days are made sweeter by the bad ones," she said. "And the bad ones make you stronger."

She especially advises protective parents to let their children figure things out for themselves.

"Everyone has to deal with failure, whether you have 10 fingers or not," she said.

For 49-year-old Wendy Stoeker, who was taking pictures at the camp with her feet, sharing her skills with campers is one of the highlights.

Stoeker proudly said that she drives a car and competed as a diver on UF's swim team.

She taught a camper how to drink from a regular cup using her feet.

"As a 3-year-old, she gets that we're the same," she said. "You can't put a price on this weekend."

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