For decades, the American Cancer Society (ACS) had been funding a nationwide childhood cancer camp program. In 2013, a business decision was made to cut funding for this program in its entirety. This was at no fault of the camps, and certainly not the campers.
I ranted about this before so will refrain from doing so again, mainly because I don’t like repeating myself, but also because I want to keep this post all zen-like, focusing on the camp and the campers and not the ACS.
Just really quick, for context: At least 25 camps were left with the choice: either close their doors or keep going on their own. My understanding is that many of the camps have indeed closed, but not all of them.
One of these still-open camps, called Camp Can Do (Forever), is practically in my own back yard. It is a long-running camp in its 31st year this year. Camp Can Do is held at an amazingly quaint and equally beautiful campground in Lebanon, PA and brings together children from 3 hospitals in Pennsylvania—St. Christopher’s in Philadelphia, Lehigh Valley Hospital in Allentown, Hershey Medical Center in Hershey—as well as from duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington Delaware. Camp is for children ages 7-17 who are either in active treatment or in remission from childhood cancer, and there is a separate program for their siblings too.
Fortunately, those who have volunteered at the camp over the decades have an unrelenting passion for the program, knowing that there really isn’t a choice: it must go on. That “Can Do” attitude has resonated, loud and clear.
The Camp Director himself is a former camper and childhood cancer survivor, who credited this camp for literally saving his life many years ago. He was angry at the time and was literally forced to go to camp per doctor’s orders, but something magical happened that changed him for the better and gave him his life back.
About 90% of the camp counselors are former campers as well, which is so key to the experience for the kids. The adults have many of the same scars, both physical and mental, but can inspire the kids through their own stories of survival. This is also a 100% volunteer effort. This includes a volunteer medical staff, with 2 doctors from Hershey Medical Center plus nurses from various hospitals. They have an “infirmary” set-up onsite, where they administer medication and provide outpatient care as needed.
I have heard story after story about how invaluable the camp experience is for the kids, to be around their peers and adults who understand their ordeal—and how the positive experience tends to carry over into the rest of the year. It is also invaluable for the parents and guardians, giving them a chance to spend some bonding time with other members of their family. It is like a vacation for everybody, but a potentially life-changing vacation for kids who have been through the toughest of times. A lot of the kids are “city kids”, so the whole roughing-it-in-the-woods thing is a unique experience in that way too.
Some of the camps that were affected by the ACS decision but were able to stay open were weekend camps, which can be operated with a relatively small amount of funding. However, keeping Camp Can Do open has been a daunting task, as it is a 3-week (not 3 days, but 3 weeks) program. In June, there is a 4-day sibling camp and in August there are 2 separate week-long camps for the kids who have personally battled or are actively battling cancer. The directors are dedicated to keeping all 3 weeks and all that comes with them, as the continuity is critical for the children (keep in mind there are many return guests) and they have a recipe that works.
In all, at least 150 kids come to Camp Can Do summer after summer, a mix of returning guests and new faces. It takes roughly $1,000 US dollars to send 1 child to camp for the week. The families have been through enough–physically, emotionally, and financially. Thus there is no cost whatsoever for families. Now, moving forward without the support of the ACS, the camp is reliant on contributions from organizations and local businesses and individuals.
This year has been a rough road for all who have been involved in the camp, given all the stress surrounding the funding issues. Plus they have been forced to go through the process of getting established as their own 501(c)(3) non-profit entity. Many of the children were worried that the camp would be closing, with rumors circulating on sites like Facebook. But, no, they worked it out for 2014 after a ton of hard work and by the generosity of so many people. Now they must immediately start thinking about 2015, which will be here before everyone knows it.
I can tell you all about what Camp Can Do is like, as I witnessed it first hand and snapped all of the pics that you see here. I visited camp on August 7, 2014, along with some other folks in my community who have come to learn about the camp and want to help in some way. It was such an amazing day; it really, truly was. I got to watch kids having the time of their life, via a huge selection of activities that include: doing science experiments, dancing, music lessons, arts and crafts, pine cars and rockets, archery, swimming, canoeing, fishing, a volleyball-type game called 9-square, Gaga ball (like dodge ball, in a pit, is all the rage), basketball, and zip-lining that required tree climbing of at least 40 feet (!!). We adult visitors even got to play a game called “steal the bacon” with the kids, and I got schooled by a girl about half my size. And no, I did not let her win. She was sly as a fox! The kids also put on a show for us as well, and we all came together to cook our own lunch ‘dogs via campfire. One of the campers came over to let me know that there were carrots and raisins to be had, in case I was interested. He was so kind, taking care of ME, it was very moving. Whenever the campers saw us visitors coming, they would chant “Camp Can Do is fun, fun, fun… and safe!”. Very, very cute.
I met 2 of the 3 boys pictured at the right as they were gulping down water, just slightly out of breath, having just returned from a 15-mile bike ride. 15 miles, on rolling hills in central Pennsylvania! They were very tired but very proud of their feat, and that is how I got to chatting with them. What struck me is how kind and polite these boys were. Imagine trying to get 3 teens/preteens to “say cheese” for a picture even. It should have been difficult to get such a great shot, but it wasn’t. They were happy. Then something else struck me. Between all of the time in clinic, hospitals etc, these kids have become quite accustomed to interacting with adults. And it showed. They seemed so mature, having been forced to grow up so fast. All I can say is thank goodness for Camp Can Do, that they are surviving on their own and that they are literally giving these kids their childhood back … while being in the company of such amazing counselors, who I would rank among the most compassionate adults on the planet. They were all super nice too.
I am a supporter of Camp Can Do because I believe in a brighter today and tomorrow for children with cancer and their families, and that this camp provides the best medicine at the right time.
Feel free to contact me if you would like more info on Camp Can Do Forever, or if you have any updates regarding the camp(s) in your own community.
Author: Laurie Orloski