Annalise Bernardino of Johns Creek is the oldest of three girls, each three years apart: Annalise, Allie and Ava. Their bond is strong, and as the oldest, Annalise, is a natural caretaker. That role was amplified when her youngest sister, Ava, was diagnosed in utero with hypoplastic left heart syndrome and pulmonary vein stenosis – not one, but two rare and serious health conditions.
Today, Ava, 17, is the oldest living child with pulmonary vein stenosis, blockage in the blood vessels that brings oxygen-rich blood from the lungs back to the heart. Annalise watched her sister's childhood challenges. “She was always the only kid at her school with a serious illness and really struggled. But then, my mom found this camp, and things changed.”
For the past decade, Ava has been attending Camp Braveheart, a camp for children with congenital or acquired heart defects, held in partnership with Camp Twin Lakes, a network of camps providing life-changing programs to Georgia's children with serious illnesses, disabilities, and other challenges.
“She isn’t pitied at camp, and she has friends who get her. Everyone has similar scars. This is the only place she fits in, and she looks forward to it every year. It’s not enough to hear a doctor say she will be ok – she benefits most from hearing it from her friends at camp,” says Annalise.
Annalise saw the positive impact camp had on Ava and working at Camp Twin Lakes has been a dream ever since. “I want to help give other children the same positive experience she had…where they can just be kids.” With Ava as her inspiration, Annalise is spending 10 weeks this summer as a camp counselor at Camp Twin Lakes in Rutledge, Ga.
A rising junior at the University of Kentucky, Annalise is studying to become a family counselor. She wants to work with children who have special needs and their families. Her sister’s inspiration has been a constant theme in her life’s path, and she’s motivated daily by Ava’s kindness, gratitude, and generosity.
For example, after a childhood friend and fellow camper passed away, Ava was inspired to create her own foundation called “Stitches of Hope” where she knits beanies and fleece tied blankets to give to kids in the hospital. She was also recently a finalist in a contest to design a hospital gown, and her design will soon be printed on thousands of hospital gowns and distributed across the country.
“I have a passion for working with children, especially children with special needs, because they are wonderful, positive people. Having the opportunity to work at Camp Twin Lakes is something I am so grateful for,” said Annalise.
For more than 25 years, Camp Twin Lakes has powered fully adaptive, medically supportive, and transformative camp experiences for children and young adults with serious illnesses, disabilities, and other life challenges. After spending every other day of the year adapting to the world around them, for one week, camp adapts to them. Partnering with more than 60 nonprofit organizations, each serving a different population, Camp Twin Lakes creates customized, intentional programming that teaches campers to overcome obstacles, grow in their confidence and capabilities, and experience the joys of childhood. The result is mindful, resilient, and confident children who are prepared to triumph over challenges. Annually, Camp Twin Lakes’ year-round programs serve 10,000 children, leveraging support from 3,500 volunteers. Camp Twin Lakes proudly subsidizes 70 percent of the direct camp costs ($550) for every camper served. Most campers attend camp at no cost to their families.