January 2, 2014

Rachel Nixon

Adolescence is a challenging time, a time that sees the innocence and naivety of childhood washed away by the many trails and obstacles that arise in this challenging world. At times we can feel lost and unsure of ourselves as we attempt to find our place and for most that is hard enough, but for many adolescents these feelings and struggles are only the tip of the iceberg. For reasons or circumstances beyond their control their attempts to adapt to the changes within adolescence are hindered by the struggles that come from a life controlled by chronic illness. Every day is another leap into the unknown, a battle between one’s illness and the fear of whether or not you’re ever going to be alright. As a result relationships between friends and family strain and the worry of fitting in and being ‘normal’ begin to fester. Having seen the ramifications chronic illness has on developing adolescents, The Royal Children’s Hospital has created a program that assists these teenagers by bringing them into a space in which they are able to relate to others who understand the isolation and hardship. Dubbed Chronic Illness Peer Support, but widely referred to as ‘ChIPS’, the organisation has become a community that many of its participants (also known as ChIPPERS) feel has become a“sanctuary”, each grateful for the support and vibrancy this program provides.

Program facilitator Jarnia Cameron has a very large presence within the ChIPS community, whose dedication and affable nature has assisted in creating both a secure and positive environment. “My role is to bring everything together” she says “to ensure that young people feel empowered and connected to others with chronic illness, and to ensure that there is ample funding to keep the program going”. Having been running for nearly twenty years, ChIPS has continued to equip young people with an outlet by allowing them to share the experiences and challenges of living with a chronic illness. “It provides the opportunity for social connectedness and gives youth experiences they may not have necessarily had before” Jarnia states, “youth participation and capacity building are also strong elements of ChIPS”.

A beacon of hope for many, ChIPS and its ability to allow young adolescents to come together and voice their troubles regarding their illness, has truly enabled them to better adapt to a life controlled by chronic illness. Dedication and support that assists in providing continual support and guidance for the ChIPPERS within the program stems from not only The Royal Children’s Hospital, but also The Victoria Police. Playing a considerable role within the program, The Victorian Police and their involvement within ChIPS has assisted in creating ‘High Challenge’ camps and socials that allow ChIPPERS to take part in activities that have a large emphasis on team building and self-confidence, in a bid to highlight the fact the one is never limited by their illness. Through the time they give up to be a part of the program, their much appreciated contribution has allowed ChIPPERS to not only test themselves, but to also see through the barrier between young people and the police force.

For Jemma Young, a Chipper of five years and a peer leader for two and a half of them, she has found that the program has not just provided her with a community of lifelong friends to support her throughout her illness, but also gifted her with a confidence that was unbeknown to her before. “ChIPS starts out with an eight week group, or two day intensive for those who live further out” she explains, “which are co-facilitated by a ChIPS staff member and a peer leader. It was my peer leader who helped me stay connected with the program and inspired me to become a peer leader myself.” Due to the kind, compassionate and supportive nature of her peer leader, Young hopes she too can be that for new members. “ChIPS has helped me find an identity other than my illness” she continues, “I have grown from a shy girl into to a confident young women”. With the program going out of its way to give young people the opportunity to be a part of things that might have never been able to do otherwise, Young realises just how much ChIPS has changed her life, and is proud to be able to give back to the program through her role as peer leader. “I’m a world away from who I used to be. I’m happy, confident and ready for the future”. Through camps, socials, public speaking workshops and leadership training, the “youth for youth model”, that allows ChIPS members to be in control of what they want to do within the program, has enabled ChIPPERS “to do everything they dream about.” “We are given the opportunity to shine, to grow and to look forward to the future as confident young people”. “Afterall” Young finishes “we aren’t our illnesses in ChIPS, we are people with a world ahead of us.”

– Rachel Nixon

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