From the Hospital to the Center Stage
At 5 years old, Seth Valadez was spending most of his time at the Phoenix Children’s Hospital. His mother, Dee, wanted Seth to be able to spend time with other kids and find an activity outside of hospital walls that allowed him to learn and grow, despite his rare medical conditions.
Seth is living with Wells’ Syndrome and Mast Cell Activation, which come with challenges like painful, inflamed skin and repeated episodes of the symptoms of anaphylaxis, respectively. With rare diagnoses and spontaneous onset of symptoms, it seemed Seth wouldn’t be able to venture far from the hospital, let alone attend a summer camp.
After sending his own child to the camp, Seth’s doctor recommended The Phoenix Theatre Company’s Summer Camp. The program offers an inclusive environment — accommodating physical, neurological and emotional special needs — where young people can communicate effectively through the arts while developing confidence and a positive sense of self as well as nurturing their inner artist.
Seth frequently required the assistance of a wheelchair, but it didn’t prevent him from attending Summer Camp. “The counselors and the community are like an extension of our family,” Dee says. “One year, Seth was in the ICU, and they came and sang to him at the hospital. It wasn’t even summertime, but the people here locally came to visit Seth. There aren’t enough words to express my gratitude.”
Now Seth, 13, and his sister, Destiny Bella, 10, both look forward to going back to Summer Camp year after year. Bella has attended camp since she first met the age requirement at 4 years old, eager to participate alongside her brother. Camp is also equipped — and the staff trained — to accommodate the medical condition that Bella lives with: seizures.
Seth vividly remembers his first day. “I was so scared and didn’t know what was going on, but the counselors really supported me. Since then, the camp has helped me with my social life. I’ve developed friendships with a lot of the staff, which in turn has led me to having better relationships with other people,” he says.
Seth and Bella have performed solos as well as in dozens of musicals over the years, and Dee emphasizes the confidence and socialization skills that her children have gained through Summer Camp. “When you have a child who spends so much time in a hospital, it's very isolating and your child becomes shy, skittish and frightened of everything, because you have doctors poking and prodding, and doing procedures on him constantly."
Through Summer Camp, Seth has come further out of his shell every year. Now, he wants to be an engineer when he grows up and even sought out and shadowed an engineer, who has since become Seth’s mentor as he plans to take the right prep classes when he enters high school.
“We teach the skills of musical theater, but also empathy, understanding and acceptance,” says Michelle Chin, Director of Summer Camp. “These skills are helping prepare the next generation to be better leaders and communicators.”
Kelli Tonkin, Senior Vice President, Treasury Management Regional Manager, sits on the Theatre Company’s advisory board and is passionate about the organization’s inclusive programming. She explains, “In addition to accommodating health needs, Summer Camp offers scholarships and fundraising opportunities so that financial constraints won’t hold kids back from attending either.”
Thousands of campers over the years have had equally life-changing experiences with The Phoenix Theatre Company’s inclusive Summer Camp, empowering them to find their voice and forge friendships. Whether a child is living with ASD, ADD/ADHD, Down syndrome, epilepsy, hearing loss, dyslexia, anxiety or another special need, “The Phoenix Theatre Company allows them the opportunity to just be kids and attend camp alongside their neuro typical peers,” explains Kelli. “They go above and beyond to make sure kids who want to attend can be — and feel —included.”
In addition to her role as Camp Director, Michelle Chin has worked as a teaching artist and choreographer, helping the Valadez siblings rehearse for various performances over the years.