Camp Quality goers don't dwell on shared cancer experiences
Aug. 05, 2017
MER ROUGE, La. (AP) — Kids swam and played on the final day of Camp Quality, a summer camp for kids with cancer and their siblings, July 27 in Mer Rouge.
Camille, 10, of Ruston, stuck her face underwater as she swam toward the edge of the pool, floating on an orange foam noodle.
Her sister, Keeley, 7, dove underwater, popped back up for air, and dove again. An adult volunteer picked her up and tossed her back into the pool.
Another sister, Chloe, swam in the deep end of the pool.
Noah, 11, of West Monroe, leaped off the edge, hands outstretched to catch a volleyball.
Inside the mess hall, a few other kids stayed out of the heat, watching "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban."
Volunteers deep-fried homemade tortilla chips in the kitchen.
Lauren, 16, of Pineville, and Leanna, 15, of Jonesville, played Connect Four, ate chips and drank Dr. Pepper.
The girls met in 2015, when Leanna started attending Camp Quality with her brother. Lauren, who brings her brother, has attended the camp since 2008.
"We wait 365 days to see each other," Leanna said.
Lauren corrected her: 365 days minus a week.
Kids come from all over the state to attend Camp Quality. The camp gives families and kids a break from the difficulties of dealing with childhood cancer. And it gives the campers an opportunity to just be themselves.
For the past several years, the camp has been located at King's Camp in Mer Rouge.
Camp Quality started in 1983 in Sydney. Pediatric oncologist Vera Entwistle, who founded the camp in Australia, was responsible for its international growth. Camp Quality was established in the United States in 1986. It now has 14 locations throughout the country.
"Her famous saying was you can't control the quantity of life but you can control the quality," Alan Barth, Executive Director of Camp Quality Louisiana, said.
"We don't talk about the disease. We don't talk about cures. We don't talk about any of it," Barth said.
Caitlin Willson, a nursing student at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, said she had been a counselor at other camps but that her experience as a companion at Camp Quality was "lifechanging."
Willson said the kids bond over common experiences - like having to live in Memphis for a year while receiving treatment at St. Jude's Children's Hospital. The kids don't dwell on cancer. It's just something they have in common.
Camille said she has an easy time making friends at camp. She and her sister Chloe have attended Camp Quality for 4 years. Keeley started attending last year.
She missed a year of school for treatments, Willson said, so it's cool to see her making friends so easily at camp.
"She said, 'I know I like to talk a lot but it's just because I don't have anyone to talk to at home,'" Willson said, recalling a conversation she had with Camille.
Willson said the kids become like a family.
This year, there are 22 campers but there is room for 40 or 50 to attend.
Recruiting campers is the most difficult part of running the camp. Barth said that because kids with cancer are often treated delicately, parents might be hesitant to let them go for a week.
According to Willson, none of the kids attending Camp Quality this year were undergoing active cancer treatments. In the past, camp staff has taken kids to treatment in Shreveport. When they do, they take activities that the camper would have done that day at camp so they don't feel left out.
A nurse is on duty at every camp activity. Nurses also dole out campers' medications as needed throughout the day.
Barth, who has volunteered at the camp for 5 years, took over the executive director role 2 years ago. He is the camp's only paid employee. It's his job to spearhead the grant writing and fundraising efforts that help raise the approximately $55,000 it takes to keep the camp running. The cost includes a small salary for Barth, the hourly wages paid to a treasurer, the cost of storage for equipment, insurance and some costs paid to the national office.
Some of the camp's fundraisers include a 5K run that takes place in March, a raffle for a George Rodrigue print and, coming up in September, Enoch's Irish Pub in Monroe will hold a Pub Charity Quiz night with proceeds going toward the camp.
Staff, including nurses and companions who mentor the campers throughout the week, are volunteers. Barth said many of the companions are college students who need service hours. They tend to stick around, though. Many return for 2 or 3 years while they are in school. Some volunteers have been with the camp since the early 2000s.
Companions go through extensive in person training during their first year at the camp. Returning staff and companions go through online training.
Willson said that at other camps, counselors were often just given a group of campers and told to figure it out.
Training for Camp Quality, however, includes teaching companions and staff to steer conversations and bond with campers. Before the campers arrive, the companions call parents to check in, learn about any food allergies, and get a sense of what kinds of activities, hobbies, movies, music the kids like. That background information gives them a starting point for getting to know the campers.
Each camper is paired with a companion. Companions and campers go everywhere in groups of 4 - 2 companions and 2 campers. That method of "two-deep" leadership helps maintain the camp's reputation
"Everything is about the kids," companion Daniel Ardito, who has been a companion for the past several summers.
Ardito said the relationship of campers 11-year-old Noah, of West Monroe, and Jackson, of Ruston, are probably the closest.
After the campers dried off and changed out of their swimsuits, the two boys crammed onto the same folding chair in a closet to rehearse the songs they planned to sing at the talent show the night of July 27.
Companion Rachel Romano sang with them as Maverick Grubbs played the guitar.
Noah rested his hand on Jackson's shoulder as they sang "Blessed Be The Name" and "The Good Father."
Both boys started attending camp 7 years ago.
Both have been cancer-free for 5 years.
"People used to pick on me at school," Noah said.
"You know everybody else went through it here. No one's going to pick on you here because everybody's friends," Jackson said.
"I wish it was 2 weeks instead," Noah said.
Information from: The News-Star, http://www.thenewsstar.com