A Week to Be Just Kids
By Kimberly Carlisle
The bell in the tiny chapel tower rings, its spire reaching for a blue California sky. From the surrounding grove of redwoods emerge kids dressed as Superman, Princess Leia, Cinderella and a fireman. They gather in a circle and begin tossing a ball of colored thread to one another, each holding on to a piece of the string. Soon a web has formed between these small and tall superheroes, symbolic of friendships made and experience shared. It’s the last night of summer camp, but in no respect is this summer camp an ordinary one.
These campers all have cancer or have a sibling who has had cancer. But this week they get to be just kids at Camp St. Dorothy’s and CPMC’s Child Life Pediatric Oncology Camp.
“When I look around the circle, I don’t know who the sick kids are, and that is what is important,”says The Reverend Jennifer Hornbeck, the youthful Episcopalian minister from San Francisco who presides over the web-weaving ceremony dressed as Superpriest. “Camp is about letting them be themselves and be with other kids, as kids.”
Camper Fiona of San Francisco explains: “You want to be like all the other kids. I’m not that special, but every time I go to the hospital, the teacher has the class make me a card. If another kid is just home with the flu, they don’t get cards.”
“Children with cancer have a great emotional need to spend time with peers who share common experiences,” adds Katie Evenbeck, executive director of St. Dorothy’s, disguised as Superzumba in this evening’s ritual. “At summer camp, children benefit from experiencing a sense of fitting in and from discussing their unique challenges with people who truly understand.”
Almost 30 years ago, CPMC saw the value of such an experience for its pediatric patients. But the logistics of sending kids in treatment to camp were daunting, if not risky. Enter CPMC’s Child Life program and its uniquely trained specialists.
“We’ve known most of these kids for a decade, we’ve become their and their families’ advocates,” says Astrid Reichenbach, a Child Life specialist who is trained in child psychology and expressive art therapy. “We are the reason why parents are finally willing to allow their kids to come to camp – because our team from CPMC is here.”
“The kids know and trust our Child Life specialists, and their presence and support is essential to a normalizing and safe camp experience,” adds Suzanne Giraudo, director of the Kalmanovitz Child Development Center and clinical supervisor for the Child Life Department.
Two Child Life specialists and two nurses care for 40 kids and their siblings, age 7 to 18. Many campers who otherwise could not participate due to medical constraints experience activities like canoeing, swimming, ropes courses and hiking for the first time. They bunk in large cabins with sleeping porches – girls in one, boys in another – the dark wood and white trim style true to the camp’s century-old origins. There’s an attic chock full of costumes, hats, shoes and props, which are creative fodder for this last evening’s superhero celebration.
The circle concludes and the campers head in costume for the dining hall. Counselor-led chants erupt along the way and the warm evening light softly filters through the trees. Health is abundant here.
Founded in 1901 by The Reverend James Otis Lincoln and his wife Nellie, St. Dorothy’s Rest sits on more than 500 acres in Camp Meeker, 50 miles north of San Francisco in western Sonoma County. It is the oldest continuously operating summer camp in the state and a retreat center operated by the Episcopal Diocese of California.
Since 1985, CPMC and its Child Life Program have teamed with St. Dorothy’s and SOCK (Supporting Our Cancer Kids) to provide free summer camp (at a cost of $1,000 per child) to CPMC pediatric hematology/oncology patients and their siblings. Funding from The Little Jim Club provides around-the-clock nursing and Child Life staff for the seven-day session.
For more information about St. Dorothy’s Rest, visit stdorothysrest.org or call 707-874-3319. To support CPMC’s Child Life Program, go to cpmc.org/giving.