MILLVILLE, Pa. - The climbing wall at Camp Little People rises 26 feet. That did not faze Dasha Kirby, who's not even 3 feet tall.

When the 9-year-old reached the top last weekend, a dozen campers and counselors cheered.

Moments later, a boy - whose mother had driven 17 hours from Missouri to bring him to this unique three-day camp west of the Poconos - froze halfway up. A counselor gently talked down the tearful child, assuring that next time he would do much better.

Camp Little People was founded by Joyce Davis of nearby Benton, Columbia County, whose daughter was born with achondroplasia, the most common form of dwarfism.

The genetic condition occurs once in every 26,000 to 40,000 births, typically as a spontaneous gene mutation, though it can also be inherited from a parent with dwarfism. It curtails bone growth.

When Becky was a toddler, Davis and her husband, both average size, "kept telling ourselves, 'She's just short,' " Davis said.

Finally, at a medical center, another mother in the same situation shocked Davis into reality by saying, " 'Your daughter's a dwarf, and I think it's time for you to deal with it!' "

Davis got support immediately from the Little People of America, a national nonprofit with 6,000 members founded in 1957 by actor Billy Barty.

Davis came up with the idea for a camp in 1994. That year, 40 campers and parents showed up, in her backyard. Three years later, it moved to its current location at Camp Victory, which over the summer hosts about 20 specialty camps for children with chronic health problems, including epilepsy, diabetes, and cancer.

With more than 100 children and their families attending, Camp Little People is the only summer program of its kind in the country.

Davis sees camp as having as much value for the parents - many with dwarfism themselves - as it has for the kids.

Here, she said, they can bond with one another and share insights on the challenges their children face. Even toilet training can be difficult for toddlers with legs too short for a regular potty chair.

While those with dwarfism generally have normal intelligence and life spans, their abnormal bone growth can lead to daunting orthopedic problems.

Bazhena Barker, a camp counselor from Philadelphia, said, "I'm 32 years old, but after three hip reconstructions, a hip replacement, and a neck-spine fusion surgery, I sometimes feel like a 73-year-old."

In one of the cabins, John Maniaci of Reading struggled to help his 4-year-old son, Anthony, climb down the ladder from a bunk bed. Both father and son have achondroplasia.

"It's fun for our son to get together with peers of his stature," said Maniaci's wife, Susie, who also has dwarfism.

"They're not towering over him. . . . At home, kids are calling him 'baby' when they're the same age. They can keep up with each other here."

Diana Sever of Moorestown, N.J., brought her 6-year-old son, Aidan, for the first time. The rest of the family is average-size, and even though Sever said Aidan wasn't treated differently from his two older brothers at home, he had been looking forward to Camp Little People "because he knew he would be in the majority."

For Dasha Kirby, camp is a place to shine. The wall climber's parents, Terri and Rob Kirby, of Summerhill, adopted her five years ago.

Terri, a college secretary, and Rob, a computer programmer, have different forms of dwarfism and were reluctant to have biological children because of their uncertainty about the genetic outcome. Also, Terri had undergone multiple hip and leg operations, which could complicate childbirth.

They had written more than 200 letters to agencies worldwide, seeking to adopt a child like themselves. Finally, they found Dasha, who has a rare form of dwarfism, in a Russian orphanage not far from Siberia.

Said Terri, simply: "It was meant to be."

Last June, Dasha made it halfway up the climbing wall and was, her mother said, "thrilled" to conquer it this year.

"I would never have done that as a kid," Terri said, "but I don't think it helps to be shy. You're better off being outgoing and fearless."

Contact staff writer April Saul
at 215-854-2872 or asaul@phillynews.com.
To view more photos from Camp Little People, go to www.philly.com