It begins normally, like any other
first day of camp. Check the kids in, make sure the paperwork is in
order, give the kids' hair a look over for lice or other beasties that
ruin the camp experience.
Once they get up to camp, they'll run and jump in a lake, go hiking
and have legendary Jell-O fights.
But this no ordinary camp, and these are no ordinary kids.
The 50 kids from the Valley and beyond who headed to Camp Sunrise
outside Payson on Saturday morning come from different economic and
social backgrounds. But they all have one thing in common.
They've all had cancer.
"We alter their lives because of the disease," said Steve Abella, a
pediatric hematologist-oncologist at Banner Desert Medical Center in
Mesa. "Once they're off chemo and are cancer survivors, the goal is to
give them the same camp experience you or I might have had as a
Abella is Camp Sunrise's camp doctor this year, following 15 years of
working cancer camps as a doctor in Michigan.
He's one of a score of medical professionals volunteering their time
at the camp so that the kids - about 10 percent of whom are in active
treatment - can have a fun summer experience.
Other doctors and nurses from Banner Desert will be attending the
camp. The nurses that did the check-ins and the head lice checks
before heading up to Payson were volunteers from the Mayo Clinic.
And though the camp is about kid play, it also serves a more serious
purpose: It's a real life examining room.
"You see whole parts of kids you don't see in clinics or the
hospital," Abella said. "They open up to you in different ways. You
see things you wouldn't normally see, since you're spending all the
time with them."
The camp is in its 27th year, all of them underwritten by the American
Cancer Society. It attracts cancer survivors from the entire state, as
well as New Mexico and Nevada. The bulk of attendees to the two-week
camp, though, are from Arizona. And they're a lot like Beth Hutchens
Beth is 11 and a little bit shy around adults. But around her friends
she's a laughing, playful girl. She was diagnosed with leukemia when
she was a little over 2 years old. She went through two years of
chemotherapy and has been in remission for about six years. She has
gone to cancer camps for a long time. Last year, she went to Sunrise
and loved the hiking and the drama classes.
Her parents loved it for another reason.
"Their self-esteem, which they need, just gets better," said Beth's
mother, Sharon. "When they go through what they go through in
treatment, they get very dependent. You tend to do more for them than
you really should because they're sick.
"There was a real difference when she came back (from her first camp
several years ago). Before she went, she wouldn't brush her own hair.
When she got back, she wouldn't let us do it for her."
Camp Sunrise is one of the few camps that don't put a limit on how
often a camper can return. Often, camps will tell families that after
so many years of remission, a space needs to open up. Not Sunrise.
And that has its own benefit.
Older campers take care of the younger campers. They become role
models. Alex Hanson-Bain, 14, of Queen Creek, has been coming to Camp
Sunrise for seven years. Still a few years too young to be a
counselor-in-training, Hanson-Bain goes to see his old friends and,
perhaps unwittingly, to be a role model.
"I like to get to know the younger kids and look after them,"
And then there's another lesson, one learned by Cathy Feldt of
Her son, Eric, is 10 and has been out of treatment for leukemia for
about 18 months. Last year was his first year at Camp Sunrise.
"When kids are going through this, they're so sick, they're
concentrating on getting better and they don't realize that there are
other kids like them. Now that he's out, he can see other kids who
went through this."
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