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Painted Turtle Camp: My Boys Gone Wild

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Actress Jami Gertz and her husband, Tony Ressler, believe that philanthropy should be a family affair. From grandparents to children, everyone in their large extended family gets involved. "Raising money and awareness are certainly important," Jami says, "but we want to teach our kids that really, it's about making a difference in somebody's else's life. I want them to know how good that feels." For the eldest of her three sons, Jami hoped that lesson would come during a trip to summer camp.

This August, sixteen-year-old Oliver Ressler, his cousin Michael Ressler and friend Beau Townsend, spent a week as volunteer counselors at The Painted Turtle Camp, an innovative camp for children with life-threatening illnesses. They shared their story with us. -Willow Bay

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Oliver Ressler, Beau Townsend, Michael Ressler and Jami (l to r)

Jami:

What I really wanted to do was to make community service a family affair so that it was a philosophy that we all shared. My husband and I decided that we needed a particular area or cause to focus on, so we decided to get involved with Paul Newman's Hole In The Wall. We helped found The Painted Turtle, a camp here in California that caters to kids with colitis, severe diabetes, liver disease, kidney disease, dwarfism and severe burns. We help these kids have the same sort of camping experience that other kids have -- like I had when I was younger, and loved. You are fishing, you are swimming, you are doing arts and crafts, you are on the zip line. That was one of the reasons we decided to get involved: we had such good memories of our own experiences at camp, and want to make sure that all sorts of kids get that chance, no matter what their circumstances.

This summer for the first time my son Oliver Ressler, his cousin Michael Ressler, and a school friend Beau Townsend spent a week at the camp. They worked as volunteer counselors, and all their campers had diabetes. I was really proud of them, and hearing about their experiences really told me that we had made the right choice to get involved. Here's what they had to say.

Oliver:

My grandfather is the reason I went to work at Painted Turtle. Yes, my mom and my dad are co-founders of the camp, but that is not the real reason that I went. You know, my grandfather has been a volunteer there since the camp opened. He's is seventy years old, he's a very heavy man, yet he musters up the ability to walk for the sake of ten sick children who just want to have fun. My Grandpa is the most kind-hearted people I know and when he told me that I would have the best time counseling them I thought to myself, if Zeta thinks that I will have a good time, then I will.

To get the real experience of the Painted Turtle Camp, you have to live there. You have to feel the emotions these kids feel when they get to summer camp, that they are having so much fun.

These kids don't get to go to summer camp, and during the year they are known as "that diabetic kid," or "that kid in the wheelchair," or "that midget," which are things that are so demeaning to them. When they get to a camp like the Painted Turtle, someone who is called a midget their whole life gets to be just a regular kid, with people just like them and it really boosts their morale. They all get to have the experience at summer camp that I had. I think we tried to make the experience as similar as possible. The point of it was just to give the kids the average sleep-away experience while trying to get them to feel their disease was perfectly acceptable.

At the end of the night, when everyone is in their bed, you're done playing a game of "Mafia" or you know, "Throw The Tennis Ball Around The Cabin," you are done getting riled up. You put the kids down and you find an object in the cabin to pass around and you can only talk if you have that object. The counselors ask questions like, "If you could wish for three things, what would they be? And give us a reason why."

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Most of the kids we had were ten- and eleven-year-old boys. So, we had mixed questions. I had a bunch of kids saying, "Oh, I want a robot arm that dispenses Coke in my mouth and shoots bullets out of the side and that is computer on one hand and drive on it if you want to." And you have the same kid when it comes back around to them that says, " I wish they would have a cure for diabetes."

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The highlight of most of these kids' week is this thing called Silly Olympics. It's basically gross stuff like shaving cream fights, get your counselor in the face with paint, and pour cornstarch all over us. The grins on their faces? From ear to ear!

After we get all dirty, the fire department- which are dear friends of the Painted Turtle- they come and bring their hose...which is very cold water, by the way. We just jump in the water and play-- all the counselors, the volunteers. We're all tired from it and dirty, we have cornstarch in our mouths, but we all tell them we are proud of them and that it was a great thing that they did -- not just in Silly Olympics, but of everything they did.

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It really puts things in perspective. Like, wow. I am a healthy person in one of the best countries in the world and with a lot of our views we all just don't put things in perspective well enough. We have war and we have all that stuff, but stuff like this shows what kind of medical problems we have in our country. And that our kids are rising above it and having a great time, that is a very, very mature thing that no one realizes.

If I were rating my week at Painted Turtle, I'd give it an 11 out of 10 because you know I said that it was fulfilling mentally for me, but it was also such a blast. You know, I had the best time.... These kids to me didn't have a disease for this week. I did not think about the outside world or anything. I didn't think how school is going to go for me next year. I didn't think about personal gains.

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Michael:

For me, it was by far a 10 or higher, because all week we change these kids' lives. You know, we give them the best memories that they're going to have. I never saw a kid with a frown on their face. They were just having the time of their life. And I was a part of that. It is awesome.

Beau:

I'd definitely give it a 10 or above. I can't find a flaw in the entire week.

Jami:

I was a little nervous about the week. I knew it would be hard in some ways. But it was obvious when they came home that the boys had had an amazing time. As soon as they got home, they did what all kids this age do -- they logged onto their computers to do email. It seemed like their first instinct was really to tell everyone how they had had such a great time at camp. "Guess what? I did the coolest thing this week." They were in there typing away. Considering how much time everyone spends on the computer, it's nice to be reminded what it could actually be used for spreading the word about what they did and how it felt. You know, to describe what it's like to spend some of your summer vacation making someone else feel good. And that's how giving back should make you feel...like you had an amazing experience. These boys really learned that lesson at the Painted Turtle, and then told their friends about it. I couldn't have been more proud.

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