Hooray for summer camp! And a double hooray if you're a kid with cancer!
"I was nine years old, I didn't have hair, and nobody looked at me funny," says Maddie Hill about her first time at Camp Can-Do.
That's right. Thanks to Camp Can-Do, even kids with cancer get to enjoy the bugs and dirt and skinned shins that any other youngster experiences at summer camp.
Of course, there's more fun than just bugs. There's swimming and archery and rocketry and a pine car derby. There's also an on-site doctor and a team of oncology nurses who gladly volunteer their time to make sure the kids are safe and keep up with their medical regimen while they're enjoying the woods in Mount Gretna.
That medical staff is a great reassurance to parents such as Maddie's mom, Dawn Hill of Dover. "I wasn't too sure about letting my daughter go for a whole week," says Hill. Maddie was in the hospital with lymphoblastic lymphoma when a nurse suggested she might want to go to Camp Can-Do. "But the nurse explained that a doctor and nurses would be at camp the whole time," Hill recalls. "So I finally said OK." She's glad she did.
So is Maddie, who is now 14 and about to start high school. She hasn't missed a summer at Camp Can-Do since she went that first time. "I've made a lot of good friends who come back every year."
Camp Can-Do was created by the American Cancer Society in Pennsylvania in 1983 to provide a terrific getaway for kids currently in treatment, along with youngsters who are post-treatment. There's even a special camp for their siblings, like Maddie's brother Travis. Siblings get to feel special at a time when their parents are giving a lot of attention to the child with cancer.
"My favorite activity is the pine car derby," says Travis, who is 12. "Camp is a lot of fun."
This year, Camp Can-Do II sibling camp is June 4-7. Camp Can-Do patient camps are the weeks of July 31st and August 7th. About 175 kids sign up every summer.
The campers range in age from 8 to 17. They get to return every summer for five years if they want. And 90 percent of them do. When the teens "graduate" at 17, they can join the Leadership Training
Program, and many later become counselors themselves.
Jennifer Gavin is one of those former-campers-turned-counselors. When she's not volunteering at camp, she's a nurse in pediatric hematology/oncology at the Penn State Hershey Children's Hospital. Jen's time at Camp Can-Do dates back to when she was nine years old, being treated for leukemia. She loved camp.
"It was my first time away from Mom and Dad. But I was so excited about being there that I wasn't even homesick." And yes, there really are bugs. "I was stung by a bee and bitten on the butt by a spider," Jen laughs. She survived both just fine.
"It was nice to be with other kids who had cancer. If some kids don't have hair, or have IV lines or feeding tubes, nobody stares."
Jen had to take a hiatus from camp for a couple of years when her leukemia relapsed, but as soon as she could, she returned, and kept coming back until she graduated from camp at age 17.
"It was emotional. I made a lot of friends. Some I still stay in touch with. And some are back now as camp counselors with me."
The counselors all volunteer for a week. So do the nurses and the on-site doctor — a rotating oncology fellow from the Penn State Hershey College of Medicine.
Even with an all-volunteer crew, it costs the American Cancer Society East
Central Division nearly $700 for each camper. But the kids and their families don't pay a cent. The cost is covered by
donations. Celebration 4 Life founders John and Miriam Witmer not only help defray a large portion of the cost, but they also show up at camp every summer to put on a pig roast — always a big hit. So is the trip to Hersheypark — an annual contribution from Hershey Entertainment that's a high point of every camp.
Anyone who doubts that the people of Central PA are generous need only look at the happy faces their generosity inspires!
For more information about Camp Can-Do, contact Lora Heck at 717-533-6144 or Lora.Heck@cancer.org
You can share your own cancer journey.
Contribute a patch to our Facing Cancer Together Digital Quilt at facingcancertogether.witf.org — where we're connecting stories, connecting lives.
Here are some other camps outside Central Pennsylvania that offer special programs for cancer patients and their families, including some programs for adults with cancer. All are free of charge, unless otherwise specified. Several of these not-for-profit groups offer year-round activities.
Philadelphia Ronald McDonald Camp
Aug 14-20. Weeklong camp ages 7-17. No charge for former or current cancer patients, but a nominal $100 fee for one sibling to attend with them. Transportation provided from Philadelphia to Camp Timber Tops in the Poconos. philarmh.org. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. 215-387-8406 ext. 402.
Believe in Tomorrow – National Children's Foundation
Family housing retreats in Ocean City, Maryland and Fenwick Island, Delaware for children who have a life threatening illness. believeintomorrow.org. email@example.com. 410-744-1032.
Camp Simcha – Chai Lifeline
In Glen Spey, New York, offering two, two-week sessions for children with cancer. Free, and transportation paid from a child's home city. campsimcha.org. 212-699-6630.
Dream Street – Dream Street Foundation
Offering summer camps in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Mississippi, and New Jersey. dreamstreetfoundation.org, 1-800-55-DREAM.
The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp
Founded by Paul Newman. Patients age 7–15 may attend this camp, free of charge, in Ashford, Connecticut. Special sessions are available for specific illnesses. holeinthewallgang.org. firstname.lastname@example.org. 860-429-3444.
Special Love for Children
Various camps in Northern Virginia include family weekends, sibling camps, teen weekends, ski weekends, under 7 weekend, and camp fantastic for cancer patients. speciallove.org. 540-667-3774.
Justin's Beach House – Justin W. Jennings Foundation
A home near Bethany Beach, Delaware, where families with cancer can have a place of respite and enjoy some fun family time. justinjennings.org. email@example.com.
Offers a kids camp, teen camp, siblings camp, young adult conference, young adult survivors conference, heads up conference and adult retreats. All programs for children and young adults are free, and financial help may be available for transportation. campdream.org. firstname.lastname@example.org. 406-549-5987.
If your child has recently lost a loved one, you might consider one of several Central PA camps that help kids deal with their grief, but also have fun. They are staffed with professional grief counselors as well as trained camp counselors.
Camp Dragonfly - PinnacleHealth Hospice
Two weekends: June 3-5 ages 6-12 at Camp Swatara in Bethel, call 800-222-5236; June 10-13, ages 6-12 and 13-15 (teen track) at Camp Hebron in Halifax, call 800-889-1098.
Camp Mend A Heart - WellSpan Health
One-day camp, June 11, at the YWCA facility on Conewago Creek near York Haven. There is a small registration fee, but scholarships are available. Contact the bereavement coordinator at 717-812-4433 or 877-862-6006 or email email@example.com.
Camp Chimaqua - Hospice of Lancaster County
Weekend camp, June 10-12 at the YMCA facility in southern Lebanon County. There is a small registration fee, but scholarships are available. 717-391-2413. hospiceoflancaster.org.
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