Kids face fears at camp

UF Health hosted Fear Facers Day Camp to allow kids aged 6 to 14 to challenge their anxieties in a fun, safe environment.

It was hot and bright as 11 children gathered into three groups at the Veterans Memorial Park. One brave soul in each group placed a small plastic colander on his or her head.

The rest of the kids started throwing eggs at the colander. Some eggs broke on the ground, while some cracked on their target. 

Yellow yolks oozed through the colanders and onto kids’ hair and scalps. They smelled as raw eggs do, their odor not benefiting from Wednesday’s summer heat. Then, it was the other kids’ turn. 

Fear Facers Day Camp is not your traditional day camp. This weeklong camp put 6- to 14-year-olds in uncomfortable, but safe, situations.

Situations like having yolk drip down your hair.

“I hear that’s a natural conditioner,” one camp counselor joked as eggs splattered on the grass.

The camp, hosted by UF Health, brought together kids with anxieties and anxiety disorders and pushed the boundaries of their comfort zones.

“It can be really hard to face a fear, in particular in isolation,” said Dr. Carol Mathews, a psychiatrist at UF Health who started the camp this year.

One 12-year-old, Nicholas Ladwig, was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder five years ago. His obsessions focus on the safety of himself and his family members, and he compulsively picks at his skin.

“He’s been for years dying to meet another kid with OCD,” said Crystal Ladwig, his mother, who homeschools both her sons and is an adjunct professor at Saint Leo University.

At the camp, Nicholas and his camp-mates do exposures, or, as Nicholas explained, “You, like, do something that the OCD doesn’t want you to.”

Although exposures to children’s fears initially heighten their anxiety, camp counselors do activities to allow the students to face their fears in a safe place, where they’re not alone.

“I relate to them, and we can go through it together,” Nicholas said. 

The camp screens participants to ensure they have anxieties that can be helped by the camp, Mathews said. The camp costs $200, not including therapy costs, which can be billed to insurers. Mathews said she’s looking for funding to allow those with fewer financial resources to attend. 

UF psychology graduate students volunteer as therapists for the participants, who get individual or group therapy sessions in the morning. Activities that include exposures, like the egg toss, or that give some relief, like a water balloon toss, happen in the afternoon.

The therapists recommend exposures for the participants, and camp counselors, who are UF undergraduate students interested in psychology and psychiatry, help the kids carry out the exposures.

The egg toss pushed kids with contamination-based fears. (They were able to wash their hands after picking up egg shells off the grass.)

One day, participants played baseball with a ball that was smothered in maple syrup and hair gel. Each time the ball whacked against a bat, goop plopped on the ground.

And one day, UF’s entomology department brought a bug zoo, complete with tarantulas and hissing cockroaches. Nicholas enjoyed that activity, Ladwig said.

Wednesday, a girl carried a rubber snake with her throughout the afternoon, spinning with it during a break.

“I don’t think I could do that,” Ladwig said, seeing the girl rest the snake across her neck.

“I think you could,” said Robyn Nelson, the camp’s assistant administrator.

Nelson, who works fulltime as a UF psychiatry research coordinator, came up with games to mimic camp games appealing to all ages but with an anxiety-inducing twist. She cheers on the students as they challenge their anxieties. During the water balloon toss, she suggested everyone take off their shoes, partly so their shoes wouldn’t get wet, and partly because one participant is usually uncomfortable having his bare feet touch the ground.

But she doesn’t leave the kids hanging. She took off her shoes, too, and got wet from water balloons.

“It gives me a sense of satisfaction seeing the kids face their fears because I know it’ll help them down the road,” Nelson said. 

“Each one has their own struggle,” she added.

Her 9-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, gets nervous speaking in public. One of her exposures was playing “Watch Ya’ Mouth,” a game that comes with plastic contraptions to keep one’s lips wide open while saying various phrases, and others have to guess what’s said.

She kept the plastic in her mouth during a break, where the students grabbed snacks and played inside.

The camp, she said, is “really fun,” she said. “It’s cool.”

Earlier, her therapists recommended she purposefully trip and fall in front of other camp participants. Three others tripped and fell with her before she did it on her own.

“It was OK,” she said.

Nicholas was in public school before he was homeschooled. Ladwig said he would come home exhausted from trying to hide his anxiety from others.

But at the camp, kids were together in tackling their anxieties, and there was no reason to hide.

“It feels so good,” Nicholas said. “Lots of times no one understands.”