“That’s what camp’s all about” — a clever statement often heard around Camp Holiday Trails (CHT) in response to one of many daily moments of personal triumph. CHT means so many things to so many people; it is almost impossible to encapsulate all of what camp is about in any one event. Or so I thought before last summer, before I met Nile.

At first, I honestly thought there was no way we could possibly be the best place to serve this teen. Even in a place dedicated to working with kids with special medical needs, Nile’s restrictions seemed impossible in our environment. I mean, he couldn’t really run, jump, or play. After all, isn’t that what camp is all about?

Nile is different; Nile is unique — but CHT is all about exceptions. All of our campers have specific medical needs that must be cared for by our Med Team, and we adapt the camp experience so that each camper can participate fully. CHT is about exceptional counselors coming together under an exceptional administrative staff (eating exceptional food) to serve an exceptional group of young people who just need to be accepted. And with this in mind, I was ready to accept the exception.

First, Nile is nothing if not polite. As a new teacher, I’m still adjusting to being addressed as Mr. Kress. Everyone who spoke with Nile was taken aback by being called “sir” or “ma’am,” even if Nile was in the middle of a medical procedure or in excruciating pain.

Additionally, Nile has an overwhelming sense of gratitude. Nile was born with sickle cell anemia and underwent a bone marrow transplant. However, the donor marrow did not quite take, and Nile contracted graft-versus-host disease. Nile’s body is rebelling against him, resulting in physically obvious pain. Nile is a triplet, but he’s the only one of his brothers to go through this ordeal. This may sound like a rough way to go through life, but you won’t find a woebegone attitude in Nile. He expresses gratitude toward the woman who was his donor and has been fortunate enough to meet her at her home in Houston. He is incredibly grateful for his family.

Nile attended camp during the heat of the summer, and because his challenges forced him to spend much of his time inside, we brought camp to him. Counselors and campers played games with Nile inside our Med Korner. Our horses even made a trip to the cabin area of camp to see Nile.

At the closing campfire, Nile complained of chest pain, and, following protocol, we took him to the emergency room. Four hours in a sterile room does not seem like an enthralling experience, but it was one of the most transformative experiences of my life. Nile’s expertise of medical procedures, from complex medications to his usual syringe size, blew my mind. But then I realized that kind of expert knowledge comes from an overwhelming number of hospital visits.

That night, I also learned about Nile’s playful sense of humor. Prior to our trip to the emergency room, camp medical staff asked Nile if he had done everything that he wanted to do at camp. He thought, smiled, and said that he always wanted to toilet paper the Director’s Annex. When I realized he was joking, he laughed between shallow breaths and told me “I got you.”

I really enjoyed getting to hear Nile’s thoughts on life, the importance of being thankful for what we do have, and even Jimmy Fallon’s rapping abilities. When his dad came to pick him up, the family bond was obviously strong, and the love shared was infectious.

Nile taught me that we are all learners, and because of him, I learned the true meaning behind some of the adages I’ve been hearing for years. He taught me to be grateful for what I have and to take nothing for granted. There truly is great value in the little things. Appreciation coupled with a positive attitude can be a powerful thing: It’s strong enough to make a debilitating diagnosis go from unfair and cruel to just another fact of life.

There are wonderful things in the world around us, and wonderful people, from all different races, genders, orientations, and, yes, with varying physical conditions. I knew there was a great deal of good in the world, but Nile showed me how to look and see. Nile and all of the campers taught me a great deal last summer, and together we had a lot of fun. And that is what camp is all about.

Tom Kress is a social studies teacher in Virginia. He remains involved at CHT, where he worked as a counselor and director. Contact the author at tkress87@gmail.com.

Originally published in the September/October 2012 Camping Magazine.