Summer camp can have a lasting positive impact on young people, shaping their character, building leadership and social skills, and teaching the responsibilities of community living. To Natalie Colwell, the experience was even more meaningful than it was to the average cabin dweller. At age 11, after completing a series of surgeries to repair multiple congenital heart defects, the Sarasota youngster was finally able to attend a summer camp in 2010 that caters to children with life-threatening medical conditions and chronic illnesses.
For the next 10 years, Colwell spent every summer at Camp Boggy Creek. After four years, she became too old to enroll as a camper, so she trained to become a camp counselor, learning how to instill leadership, teamwork and self-confidence in youths battling more than the usual challenges of adolescence. She continued volunteering there as a public health major at Florida Gulf Coast University, eventually amassing 1,000 hours of service.
Colwell’s dedication to serving above and beyond what’s required of most FGCU undergraduates was recognized in spring when she received the Office of Service-Learning & Civic Engagement’s 2020 Excellence in Civic Engagement Award, along with five other graduating seniors. Service-learning is an educational experience designed to match students’ academic goals and personal interests with community and university needs.
“Natalie represents all that we hope for students as they engage in service-learning at FGCU,” says Director of Community Engagement Justin Fitzgerald. “With over four years and nearly 1,000 hours of service with Camp Boggy Creek, she found unique ways to connect her life experience, her passions, her coursework and her career goals to needs in the community. Her story represents the reason service-learning remains an integral part of the FGCU experience.”
The university’s commitment to civic engagement was one of the reasons Colwell chose FGCU. Being an active service-learner “fills you up” with the satisfaction of helping others, she says, while also benefiting students in other ways.
“I love volunteering – it’s one of my favorite things,” she says. “It’s a tool that helps you gauge what you want to do after college while also benefiting the community. You meet people from other majors that are interested in some of the same things you’re interested in. You create relationships that can benefit you after graduation.”
In fact, before being hired in July as a registered nurse in the emergency room at Lee Memorial Hospital in Fort Myers, Colwell continued to help the nonprofit Boggy Creek engage youngsters remotely while residential activities were canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There are a lot of adaptive things in the works — videos, singalongs, virtual campfires on the computer,” she says. “Boggy Creek has been open since 1996 and has never had to cancel. It’s been a change, but all the kids get to do things from home.”
Co-founded by actor/philanthropist Paul Newman and Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the free camp north of Orlando in Eustis, Florida, enables children 7 through 16 to enjoy activities such as swimming, boating, fishing, arts and crafts and horseback riding. A full-time physician and nurse, as well as volunteer doctors and nurses, staff an on-site clinic for campers who need treatments or other medical attention.
What further sets the camp apart from others is that activities are made adaptive so anyone can participate regardless of their health issues. Kids using wheelchairs can try their hands at archery. Those with fine motor disabilities can paint. When she was younger, Colwell’s condition forced her to give up many physical activities she liked, which she says affected her self-esteem. Boggy Creek helped turn that around.
“It’s a comforting environment, and I got to meet people like me so I didn’t feel so different,” she recalls. “The counselors are some of the most compassionate people I’ve ever met. My counselors and camp friends changed my life so much. They made me feel important and needed. After I aged out, I wanted to be that counselor for other kids.”
Although the majority of her service-learning was completed at the camp, Colwell also earned hours volunteering for Habitat for Humanity and for FGCU’s annual spring Dance Marathon, a 13-hour event that culminates a year of fundraising for Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida, a Children’s Miracle Network hospital. Part of a national campaign, Dance Marathon has been a tradition at FGCU since 2011 and has raised more than $150,000.
“I was a miracle child myself for Children’s Miracle Network,” she says of representing the nonprofit organization that raises funds for children’s hospitals, medical research and community awareness of children’s health issues.
Considering all her life experience before college, it’s no wonder Colwell wanted to pursue a field of study where she could help others. At the same time she completed her FGCU bachelor’s degree in public health, she earned an associates of science in nursing degree from Florida SouthWestern State College. Within weeks of graduating, she had a third reason to celebrate: She passed the board exams to receive certification as a registered nurse.
With 1,000 hours of service-learning devoted to transforming the lives of Camp Boggy Creek kids, it should come as no surprise that her heart is set on working with children.