Valerie Gonzalez began her career with AAKP over 18 years ago in May 2005 as an administrative assistant and now leads the entire administrative team as AAKP’s Director of Office Operations. If you have ever been to an in-person AAKP event or visited the AAKP booth at a kidney conference, you may have met Valerie over the years. If you have ever called AAKP with a question or to place an order, you may have spoken to her on the phone. Always willing to help, Valerie goes above and beyond for anyone in need and has a sincere heart for helping others. Some of her fondest memories include the in-person Annual National Patient Meetings, especially the Friday night dance parties and how much fun patients had interacting with each other on the dance floor.
With two grown daughters and grandkids who live nearby, Valerie keeps very busy outside of work with family activities, including little league games, cheering on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and celebrating endless birthdays and special occasions. She is also the care partner for her mother, who has chronic kidney disease.
True to Valerie’s giving and nurturing nature, this past summer, she spent a week volunteering for kids with special needs at Camp Boggy Creek located in Eustis, Florida.
Camp Boggy Creek
Camp Boggy Creek provides children with serious medical illnesses with a free life-changing camp experience. Valerie first heard about Camp Boggy Creek in 2006 from former AAKP Executive Director Kris Robinson (1990–2008). Valerie and Kris toured the camp, a two-hour drive from AAKP’s headquarters in Tampa, Florida. During the visit, Valerie fell in love with the camp and knew some day she wanted to get involved and volunteer there. She toured the camp again a few years later, bringing more AAKP staff members with her, and felt the same tug to get involved.
“I was just amazed at the incredible things they do for kids living with chronic health conditions and with disabilities at Camp Boggy Creek.”
Over the years, Valerie never forgot about her visits to Camp Boggy Creek and spoke highly of the camp to anyone looking for summer camps for pediatric kidney patients. In early 2023, a Camp Boggy Creek staff member reached out to AAKP to help promote their summer camps through AAKP’s Pediatric Kidney Pals Initiative. AAKP was honored to help by featuring ads in its aakpRENALIFE magazine and e-newsletters, in addition to including information on AAKP’s Pediatric Kidney Pals web page. Valerie decided the time seemed right to see if there was a way that she could volunteer for the summer camp program.
Current AAKP Executive Director Diana Clynes wholeheartedly supported Valerie’s interest in volunteering at Camp Boggy Creek, knowing it had been a dream of hers for years. In spring 2023, Valerie started the application process to become a summer camp counselor. She completed an online application, background screening, and had an interview. After finalizing all the steps, she was officially accepted as a camp counselor for the week of July 21–26, 2023. Valerie says she was both excited and nervous, but knew this would be an experience that would change many lives for the better, including her own.
As camp neared, Valerie said the camp staff did a great job of preparing the volunteers for what to expect. Some of those things included: to have fun, be exhausted, laugh and laugh hard, feel needed, have little free time to oneself, and to love and be loved. They also included a list of what not to expect from camp, which included: to be on vacation, have a lot of privacy, and be bored.
Valerie’s first day at Camp Boggy Creek was a full day of orientation. The camp counselors were assigned to their cabins, and Valerie was assigned Red Panda 6. They also reviewed camper profiles and discussed proper ways to work with each child based on their medical and health needs. In Valerie’s cabin, there were eight girls ages 15 to 17 with different chronic illnesses including severe asthma, craniofacial, kidney disease, and spina bifida.
To care for the eight girls were five counselors in Red Panda 6. The staff were very thorough in assignments to make sure all the kids’ needs were met. At the end of the first day, the counselors laid out homemade blankets and teddy bears on each bunk, and everyone was excited to meet the campers the following day.
The next morning before campers arrived, camp counselors met for final instructions and assignments. Valerie was assigned to be a greeter and assist with check in. She enjoyed this task because it allowed her to meet so many of the kids and their families beyond those within her bunk. Valerie helped direct each child to their assigned nurse for the check-in health screening, a requirement for all campers at the start of each camp. Once all campers were checked in and health screens were complete, Valerie directed them to counselors standing by to take them and their parents and to their assigned cabins where they got to meet their fellow bunkmates and said goodbyes to mom and dad (or guardian).
The next five days and four nights were filled with activities like horseback riding, fishing, boating, mini golf, archery, arts and crafts, theater, and much more. Each evening, campers could pick the activities they wanted to participate in the following morning, and then they had a set schedule of activities to follow for the rest of the day. Campers were busy from 7:30 a.m. to bedtime at 9 or 10 p.m. Valerie shared that by the end of each day, the kids and counselors were exhausted.
One of Valerie’s favorite activities to help with was horseback riding. Since she had experience with horses, she was allowed to assist with walking the horse. She said it was wonderful to see that even kids in wheelchairs could experience horseback riding. The staff and counselors made sure that it was a safe experience and each child was fully supported.
Another fond memory Valerie has about camp is the energetic, song-filled lunch breaks. She and the kids sang songs and learned competitive chants that made mealtime even more fun. The kids were able to completely be themselves and just have fun while in a caring and safe atmosphere.
The evenings brought group activities which included a bonfire in the gym, theater performances, and games, followed by cabin activities, which in Valerie’s cabin, often meant makeup and nails! For her group of older teens, the lights were out at 10 p.m. each night.
By the end of the camp, the kids in Valerie’s group had developed strong bonds with each other and many exchanged emails and phone numbers to keep in touch. Valerie shared that she had the most wonderful experience and would recommend volunteering at Camp Boggy Creek to anyone who wants to make a difference in the lives of kids with special needs.
“It’s so hard to explain what I experienced over these five days. You will never understand until you do it for yourself. I want to believe that I made a difference in the life of at least one of my campers as I know each and every one of them made a difference in my life!”
For more information on Camp Boggy Creek Summer camp:
Learn more about Boggy Creek: https://www.boggycreek.org