Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Better than Disney

"This is a warning--If you can't handle optimism, don't go around children with cancer. If you feel tears are more appropriate than laughter, don't even think of dropping in on a camp wherey they are. If you don't want to put yourself at risk feeling good about yourself, your life and the world....wear a mask!" --Erma Bombeck

I'm San Antonio bound Friday morning! Time for Camp Discovery! No computer access until after July 22nd, so please excuse the lag in blogging. I'm really excited to head back to camp and run Arts and Crafts for the third summer in a row. What can I say about Camp Discovery that I haven't already said? I love this experience.

My first summer, I watched a young boy explain it best on the last day of camp. He timidly walked up to the microphone after throwing his "wish" into the bonfire (the ashes of which start the next year's bonfire) and said, "Some people say that Disney World is the greatest place on earth, but they've never been to Camp Discovery!!" The staff sat with tears in our eyes with the realization that our exhaustion and our hardwork for the week was worth every second. That child was pale and bald, and he was heading back to the hospital shortly after camp.

I never wanted to be the Arts and Crafts director for camp. I just wanted to be a counselor, hanging out with a specific age group and enjoying camp life. But the first year I applied, I was pregnant with little Munchie. The camp director called me saying they really wanted me as a member of the staff, but I was NOT going to go as a counselor. I was offered the A&C position because it is in an air conditioned building and rooms in the staff cabins away from the kids. That would give me time to rest in the evening. I did NOT want to accept the position. Me--Arts and Crafts? No freaking way. I don't do crafts. I am not crafty in any way. But this was the only way I was going to camp. So, I begrudingly accepted the position, convincing myself that if I hated crafts, I could move to being a counselor the following year when I was not pregnant. Three summers later, there is NO WAY I want to be in any other spot at Camp Discovery then in my Arts & Crafts room! You would have to seriously fight me to get me to leave my coveted position and consider doing anything else! Funny how that turned out!

I never went to camp as a kid but I was always curious of what that experience was like. I imagine that our camp is very similar to most summer camps with some large differences--all campers are cancer patients or survivors. Some will walk out of the hospital and on to the bus on Sunday afternoon. Some have been off treatment for quite some time, with long hair and no outer side effects from their cancer. We have a fully equipped camp, but with some extra bells and whistles that most camps don't have. Our "Band Aid Box" comes with oncology nurses prepared to give chemo when needed and trained in side effects of treatment. We have an oncologist on staff at all times, and a large majority of our staff (counselors, nurses, and staff like me) are cancer survivors. Many of them are former campers returning to give back to others for the memories they were given at camp themselves. I am the lone person in my category--a cancer parent. We don't have anyone else on staff with that on their resume.

It's a moving experience, watching the children interact. There is no other place that you can see the bald child leading the blind child (who lost sight due to either a side effect or had something such as retinoblastoma, a cancer of the eye) walking alongside of the child with thick long hair pushing the wheelchair of the newly amputated child. We see it all. And there are no boundaries for these children--they're all equal and treat each other as such. Beautiful, I tell you, simply beautiful.

I fell in love with camp the first summer, but I worried whether I would return once Maggie was born. The final night of that first camp, I made my decision. The last night, closing ceremonies provides the kids a way to express their emotions and opinions about both their cancer and camp experience. Each person in the amphitheater is given a small piece of paper with which to write down their "wishes." Cabin by cabin, the kids are invited to come up front and throw their papers into the bonfire. If they choose, they are able to come to microphone and share their emotions. It usually starts off with the seven year olds saying cute things like, "I love Camp Discovery--I wish it lasted all summer long" followed by the entire staff looking at each other with exhausted eyes and mouthing "No!!" The older the cabin groups that come up to the bonfire, the more emotional the moments at the mic tend to become. That first summer, a very pretty young lady of about 14 or 15, walked up to the microphone sobbing. Her cancer was gone, but the lasting effects of what it did to her will be with her for the rest of her life. I do not know the details of her treatment or her cancer, but I know that it left her face disfigured. One eye was larger than the other and it was noticeable. She tried to keep that side of her face covered with her long bangs and looked at you with only one eye. With sobs, she gently said, "When I look at myself in the mirror at home each day, I don't like what I see. I'm different. People treat me differently, and I hate myself." Long pause as her cabin quickly jumps to her side and surrounds her with love. "And then I come here, and I'm not different. I'm just like everyone else and I'm a normal kid. I love you guys." Tears fear flowing not just from the girl's cabin, but from most (except the seven year old boys who are looking a little lost and wondering when in the heck do they get to see the fireworks). I sat there and sobbed for this young lady and cried for the beauty of the experience. I cried happy tears that she had this sanctuary and this place to be like everyone else.

I told her the next summer that she was my reason for returning. She and I had a good cry as I told her that she was my inspiration and that knowing her was an honor in my life. I will never forget this child for the rest of my life.

It's funny--I don't cry in public often about my life or what happened to Allie. Very few people have seen me shed many tears. But at camp, especially during staff orientation when we all share our favorite camp moments, I cry. Not cry, I bawl. Last year, as I began to cry, as tried to tell everyone, "but I usually don't cry." Several laughed and said, "you ALWAYS cry, Jenny!!" Maybe it is my outlet.

I will miss my family desperately, but I know they will do fine without me. Andrew is the most capable father you've ever met and Maggie is Daddy's Little Girl. She was angry with me last summer when I returned home and wouldn't look at me for over an hour. I wonder how she will react this summer! We tell her that when she's old enough, she will go on her own camp. She NEVER gets to go to Camp Discovery (remember--you have to have had CANCER to be a camper--something Maggie will NOT have!!!), but she will have her own camp experience.

I'm excited to see my camp friends and favorite camp kiddos. I'm looking forward to the crazy, fun, exhausting days of camp--fuse beads (can I tell you how much I hate those darn things--hate ironing them, hate picking them up, yet love the fact that they can render even a 15 year old teenage boy quiet while assembling his fuse bead dog!), tye die, flag pole (thank goodness I am not with a cabin group since I am late to flagpole just about every morning--like pep rally at 7:45 in the heat with cheesy camp music--I've got joy, down in my heart, deep deep down in my heart!!). I can't wait for the carnival, the dance, skit night, and even all camp swim. Maybe I will actually swim this year? I can't wait to see the beaming red faces as they bound into the Arts & Crafts room after an hour of archery in the heat or a trip out on horseback. I'm thrilled that my favorite retired woodworkers from Sun City out of Georgetown will spend the day with us in A&C making a woodworking project the campers LOVE.

Have you gotten the point that I LOVE Camp Discovery??

And with that, I prepare myself to sing (to the tune of "You are my Sunshine")

It's summer fun time

Out in the sunshine

We'll have the best time of the year!

At Camp Discovery, we're one big family

Full of hope, full of love, full of cheer!!


Saint Richard said...

What a beautiful post. I have nothing more to say.

Carolein said...

Such a beautiful post Jenny. Have a safe trip to San Antonio and back. We'll "see" you in a little over a week! Have fun!!!

Tracy said...

I look forward to hearing about your experience this year. Each year I have loved reading about your experience, but for some reason I think this year is going to offer something more. Really not sure why, just a feeling.

As far as crying goes I feel it helps my soul. Although, I wish there were times that I could hold my emotions in. I tend to where then on my sleeve.

Anonymous said...

Like I told you when you were here - I look forward to going with you as a volunteer once I get my pediatric oncology MSW experience under my belt.

Just don't ask me to do the Arts and Crafts. Seriously. You know me.


pipsylou said...

Jenny, I love this! I want to find out more about the camp. Could you post a link? Or I could just google it. I know others would be interested, too!

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful post Jenny. My heart hurts for that sweet girl you spoke of. If I had one magical ability it would be to cure every single child of cancer.

You are such a wonderful person and I am sure you enrich so many lives at Camp Discovery. Have a safe and fun trip.

christy said...

What a beautiful tribute to Camp Discovery. I cried reading about how it's touched you.

Hope you have a safe and fun trip!!

Anonymous said...

Ugh! I'm crying in my chicken! Now I don't have to add salt! hehe Beautiful post Jenny :) I hope you have a wonderful time and bring smiles to all those sweet kids attending.

I will miss reading your blog while you're gone! It's become a daily habit for me! :)

Have fun and take care!

Anonymous said...

Have the most amazing time at Camp! The post makes me miss my camp days both at cancer camp and diabetes camp. What fun I had when I was a sibling of a cancer survivor at Cancer Camp and all the years I went to diabetes camp. The girl who said that she doesn't feel any different when she is at Camp Discovery makes me want to find a new camp to volunteer for. Beautiful post and I'm sure there will be beautiful crafts to come. Thank you for sharing your love of Camp Discovery with us! Be safe and have a wonderful time!

Love from Long Island, NY
:) Erin

Lisa said...

Camp Discovery sounds like a wonderful place. And you are a wonderful person for being the A&C person. Shed as many tears as you like- it's good for the soul. Lisa

Dana said...

Have a great time! Camp Discovery sounds like a wonderful place, and your stories brought tears to my eyes! We'll miss you, but I can't wait to read your stories when you come back!

Sharon Lawson said...

Darling daughter,
Geez.... next time give me a little warning. I'm a mess after reading that post! And to make matters worse, I didn't realize it would be so emotional when I read it (out loud) to your Mom Mom. You made us both cry!
Have a great time at camp. We'll have fun with Maggie.

AmazingGraceTX said...

I just dropped Benji off today. He's looking forward to seeing you. Camp Discovery is something that he talks about all year. He plans on outdoing his costume choice last year. I hope all is well. Please keep an eye out for my Benji.
God bless, Loriann

AbbyandBrianasMommy said...

Wow I can't imagine how awesome that is~~ What a great opportunity- Maggie so beautiful! I hope you guys have a wonderful trip and experience!