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Spirit for Life

When Killian Fritz plays basketball, he’s generally right under the hoop, mixing it up.

The Windom High School senior is a fearless and intense player who loves the competition. One time, he played almost an entire game with a broken leg, something that happened when he got caught between two other guys, wheelchairs crashing as everyone scrambled for the ball.

“When we play, the wheels just don’t stay on the floor. They’re all over the place,” says Killian, wiping his face and putting on a baseball cap as he leaves the gym floor. “You just get in there and go for it.”

The 17-year-old, who was born with spina bifida, a congenital birth defect that causes paralyzation, wasn’t always this confident. Today he talks about his plans for college and his new car, a compact SUV that allows him mobility and independence. He says the experiences he had at Spirit Camp, an annual week-long camp run by Sanford Health have given him an assurance that he could do anything.

“Spirit Camp has changed my life in so many ways,” said Killian. “I don’t know what I would have done without it.”

Giving back

After 11 years as a camper, Killian decided to try to help out in a new way. He had done fundraising for the camp in the past with wheelchair basketball games done at his high school, but he wanted to do something more. This fall, he decided to write an application for a grant to help fund Spirit Camp, preparing all the paperwork and writing essays explaining how the lasting relationships and new experiences have changed his life.

His proposal to the Robert and Helen Remick Foundation of Lakefield, Minn., earned the camp a $20,000 grant – the largest that camp officials have received from the organization. That money will be used to help run a summer program that can change the lives of kids who are used to being different, Killian says.

“The people at camp are like a second family to me,” he said. “Being around other people who go through the same things I do has helped me become more confident in myself.”

New interests and confidence

His grandmother, Jane Bretzman remembers taking a shy, nervous six-year-old boy for his first visit to camp. Killian wasn’t sure that he’d even want to stay for the week, but then he saw all the other kids with spina bifida playing basketball and paintball, going tubing and learning archery and bb-gun shooting. He was making new friends and opening up in ways that amazed his family.

“He’s a whole different kid today,” said Bretzman, proudly watching her grandson shoot baskets. “It’s hard to even describe the changes we’ve seen.”

Spirit Camp was the first time that Killian had seen wheelchair basketball. After playing at camp, he joined the Sioux Wheelers team, practicing and playing most weekends.

Lasting friendships

But even more important than the activities were the friendships he has made each summer, Killian said. As the only student in his high school who uses a wheelchair, Killian often feels a bit isolated from some of his classmates. Some students are uncomfortable around him and there are times when he wishes he could just fit in.

“I sometimes feel like I have to explain the same things over and over again,” said Killian, who regularly e-mails and talks with his Spirit Camp friends. “For one week each summer, I’m some place where everybody’s the same.”

After 11 summers as a camper, Killian plans to apply to be a mentor at the camp. He hopes to be able to help other kids with spina bifida have the kind of experiences that made such an impact on his future.

As he rolls out to his car, a dark blue Honda Element that has swing-out doors that he can easily operate, lifting himself and his wheelchair quickly into place, he jokes about how easily he can manage around the curbs. Without Spirit Camp, he says, he wouldn’t have been likely to even try to drive his own car – or make the kind of plans he has for the future.

“I love curbs – they don’t slow me down,” Killian says, smiling. “Nothing does.”

Posted Date: April 2011