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Faith Hamilton, 11, on left, goes on a late evening hike with parents Jeneen and Tim Hamilton at Walden West Center in Saratoga, Calif., on Wednesday, April 2, 2014. (Josie Lepe/Bay Area News Group)

SARATOGA -- As a boy, Tim Hamilton tagged along with his dad when he was building wheelchair ramps at a camp in the woods near Saratoga. He had no reason to think that three decades later, they would help his own child experience the joys of nature.

Yet this week, his 11-year-old daughter, Faith Hamilton, was zipping up the ramps in her purple motorized wheelchair, outpacing many of her classmates at Walden West Outdoor School in Saratoga.

Tim Hamilton, who was 10 when his father was building the camp ramps and is now a superintendent with the Whiting-Turner Contracting Company, never dreamed that one day his daughter would benefit from that long-ago effort, a coincidence he called "weird" and her mother, Jeneen Hamilton, deemed "trippy."

"I didn't even know if I'd be in the same state," he said.

But the family connection further stoked Faith's desire to attend the weeklong, sleep-away camp with her fifth-grade classmates from San Jose's Majestic Way Elementary School, her first camping experience.

"Even when it's raining here, she's gung-ho to go out," said Walden West Director Anita Parsons, who calls Faith a "trooper."

Like the other campers at Walden West this week, Hamilton has a camp name -- she's "Dreamcatcher" -- and can belt out the lyrics to "Dirt, You Made My Lunch" and other camp songs.


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But unlike the others, she can't walk or breathe on her own. Hamilton has arthrogryposis, a muscular abnormality that causes weakness and clenched joints. She also suffers from a host of other medical problems. She's had 16 surgeries and spent the first 21 months of her life in a hospital or rehabilitation center. She uses a ventilator and a feeding tube, although she can eat some food on her own. Faith wasn't expected to survive birth, much less attend science camp.

Yet thanks to the support of her parents, her grandparents and Parsons, Faith is spending the week learning about banana slugs and food composting and enjoying "hikes" in her wheelchair, just one of the gang.

Walden West, an outdoor education program operated by the Santa Clara County Office of Education, hosts some 9,000 children a year in a variety of programs at its woodsy camps in Saratoga and Cupertino.

Parsons said she often accommodates students with special needs, but hosting Faith required extra creativity. She needs 24-hour care -- her ventilator could crash at any time. So Parsons converted a small room that usually serves as the health office into a private bunk for Faith, her mother and her grandfather, Vince Aluffi. Both have received special training to deal with Faith's medical issues. The room abuts the "Coyotes" girls' dorm, so Faith can join her classmates during the brief breaks between singalongs, snacks and excursions.

A nurse and an educational aide also accompany Faith. Yet the shy girl with a ponytail and freckles, who enjoys roller coasters and dreams of racing off-road vehicles, had no intention of allowing her disabilities to stop her from attending the camp. Nor did her mother, who served as a teenage counselor. Aluffi's wife, Patricia, has also volunteered at the camp, which he says "is part of the family."

"This is a place where a child can just take a deep breath and say, 'Ahhhhhh, I can relax,'" Aluffi said.

Faith relaxed in the supportive atmosphere too, Jeneen Hamilton said. The normally reserved girl raised her hand eagerly during an instruction section and has met new friends as well.

Ensuring Faith could attend camp took some preparation. Instead of merely a backpack, some clothes and a sleeping bag, she arrived with cartons of medical supplies, neatly labeled and stacked near her bunk.

The supplies are applied to most every aspect of Faith's life. Aluffi refitted Faith's wheelchair to accommodate supplies for her ventilator and feeding tube. And her mother lowered a drawing board at their Berryessa home so Faith could reach it. When the campers scrambled down to a creek Wednesday to catch bugs, Faith's mother and father sprang into action. They passed her back and forth down the steep bank, then gently set her down beside the water on a backpack. They wedged a stick in the handle to extend her net, and before long Faith was scooping bugs with her classmates.

"Is this one?," she asked her mother, pulling the net out of the water. No, Jeneen Hamilton replied as they washed small twigs out of the net. Bug catching was a bit chilly. Faith said her favorite part of camp was a nighttime astronomy activity.

And as the sun set over the campground Wednesday evening, Tim Hamilton joined his family on the trails of Walden West for a nighttime hike. Together, they climbed a dirt trail, helping Faith navigate the bumpy slope, a much trickier terrain than the buildings' wooden access ramps.

"Having Faith has changed my perspective," Jeneen Hamilton said. "I always live in the moment ... It's not about how long you live. It's how well you live."

Contact Becky Bach at 408-920-5862. Follow Becky Bach at Twitter.com/troutbach.