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Breathing Easier Camp Champ Gives Kids With Asthma A Rare Chance To Run And Play Hard

After a hard Sunday morning spent mastering an obstacle course, Joseph Keeton was ready for fresh air and lunch.

The big-eyed second-grader scrambled into a bunkhouse and strapped on a plastic oxygen mask.

One cheek planted on a fist, he waited - as patiently as a 7-year-old can - while an electric machine pumped medicated mist into his lungs.

Ten minutes later, the Latah, Wash., boy snapped off the mask and sucked in a gulp of Idaho air. Ahhhh, time to eat.

Welcome to Camp Champ, where severe asthma sufferers like Keeton gather each summer to do what some of these kids rarely get to: run hard in the woods, swim in a lake, play with kids like themselves.

In the forested hills above Lake Coeur d’Alene at Camp Lutherhaven, these 45 kids will learn over four days to better control a debilitating disease and gain self-esteem in a world populated by free breathers.

“A lot of these kids spend a lot of time being embarrassed or shy because they’re different,” said Yvonne Bucklin, an American Lung Association camp host.

The gathering combines traditional summer camp experiences with asthma education.

Much of the campers’ time is spent riding boats, tackling arts and crafts, belting out campfire songs and learning to swim. But each day at noon, nurses, doctors and medically trained counselors parade the kids past folding tables with boxes of “meds.”

“It’s just like harvest time in a wheat town,” said Dr. Michael Kraemer, camp co-founder. “Everyone shows up and, somehow, it all gets done.”

For most, it’s nothing new.

Keeton goes through the same medical treatment twice a day at home, but he doesn’t meet as many friends at home. At camp, he was more eager than usual to finish.

“I’ve made two friends already, and I’ve only been here a day,” he said.

April Johnson of Kendrick, Idaho, spent her morning making candles out of paraffin, ice cubes and crayons. But she couldn’t stop talking - and giggling - about her rotating sleeping arrangements.

She kept switching beds, she said, because “everybody wants me to sleep by them.”

Six to 10 percent of all children have asthma. About one-third are severe cases, requiring kids to take a half-dozen different medications or risk death, Kraemer said.

“If you asked these kids how many of them missed 10 days or more of school last year, I’d bet it’d be half of them,” Kraemer said. “It’s the only chronic disease of childhood that has gone up in frequency in the past 10 years.”

Due to a combination of nervous parents and foul air, ranging from cigarette fumes and smog to grassfield burning, some of these kids rarely play outside or with others. So the camp concentrates on cooperation-building.

And what could be better than trying to get 15 pre-adolescent boys to sit on a slick log - suspended one foot off the ground with cables - for 20 seconds without falling?

After several failed Sunday, one team became little more than a silly, wise-cracking mass of Nikes and dust.

“I know, I know,” said John Proctor, 12, of Spokane, who shares his asthmatic condition with a twin brother. “We get the biggest people to lay across it and put the rest on top.”

“Nope,” a counselor said with a laugh. “No stacking people. That would put pressure on your ribs.”

“Oh, well,” John said. “Got a better idea?”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color photos

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