Magic. Silliness. Fun. Empowerment. Those are the ingredients of The Painted Turtle as described by Vicky Nguyen, who has been a volunteer since the moment Camp opened its gates in 2004. She has also been a supporter in countless other ways, including participating in the ambassador program and running in the LA Marathon to benefit Camp.
Everyone has a different story about how they first learned of Camp. In 2002 as a patient at UCLA Health, Vicky was told about The Painted Turtle by her nurse coordinator, Beth Vandenbogaart, who would go on to be Camp’s first Nursing Director. The Painted Turtle was not yet open, but Beth shared the idea of a place where kids with serious medical conditions could forget about their diagnoses for a while and focus on the joys of simply being a kid. This place would be accessible for kids using wheelchairs, kids who require dialysis or infusions, and everyone who came through the front gate.
For Vicky, who had undergone two liver transplants during her childhood, this seemed like a dream come true. Though she was too old to attend Camp as a camper, she signed up to volunteer as soon as The Painted Turtle opened. Working with campers who had gone through a liver transplant or were coping with liver disease was especially memorable for Vicky during her first summer session as a volunteer. “I myself was a kid with a condition. You have all the barriers and restrictions and you’re not allowed to really have fun. You feel like an outcast, as if no one understands you. And that’s where Camp has its magic,” says Vicky.
She recalls one day during the session when she took her group of campers to the pool. Rather than concealing the scars left by their liver transplants, the campers compared their scars with each other, beaming with pride. “It was a sweet and empowering moment. They were so carefree. It made me learn to appreciate and love my scar as well,” remembers Vicky.
Nearly two decades later, Vicky continues to regularly volunteer during summer sessions, family weekends, day events, and Outpost. During those years, Vicky faced another medical challenge of her own: she was diagnosed with cancer in 2018. She has since been declared cancer free, but when faced with difficult challenges throughout treatment, Vicky drew strength from her time at Camp.
“I learned from the campers not to let my sickness limit what I can and cannot do. That has changed my life. Throughout my cancer journey, I thought back to the S.T.A.R. model: stay safe, try new things, always build up, and respect myself and my environment. When I was well enough in remission, I jumped out of a plane and skydived. To me… that was almost my ‘ropes course’ moment. That’s what Camp has taught me,” says Vicky.
Vicky has always had an interest in the medical field and has worked as an advocate for organ and blood donors. Now, inspired by the medical professionals who took care of her during her treatment, she is pursuing a career in nursing. She says that Camp also played a role in her decision. “Camp has added so much more meaning to that dream beyond accolades,” says Vicky.
To Vicky, Camp is a refuge in a world that can be draining and present difficult challenges, medical or otherwise.
“I feel like there’s almost a magical barrier at the front gate of Camp. When you pass through and enter Camp, everything that you worry about in your day to day life is gone. It takes your breath away. You feel like you’re safe,” says Vicky. In her eyes, Camp is an antidote to negativity in the world.
Vicky encourages volunteers of all personality types and backgrounds to volunteer at Camp if they have the opportunity. She insists that everyone has a place at Camp. What unites them all, she says, is an unwavering commitment to help each other. If someone is on the peripherals, Painted Turtle volunteers won’t hesitate to include them; if someone is struggling, volunteers pitch in to lend a hand. “I’ve volunteered at countless organizations, and bar none—Painted Turtle volunteers cannot be compared. They’re giving, helpful, inclusive, and full of positivity and joy. It makes every part of Camp that much more fun,” says Vicky.
Volunteers at Camp have the opportunity to connect with campers personally and help guide them through the magic of experiencing new things for the first time and building friendships with other children who can relate to them. For Vicky, it’s this immediacy that sets Camp apart from other volunteer opportunities and keeps her coming back decades after hearing about The Painted Turtle for the first time.
“You get to actually see how your volunteering makes an impact. You see the results—the lasting results. It’s tangible. You see the smiles. You hear the laughs. You feel the love.”
A Story from Kaitlyn McQuown, Communications Coordinator.