Reclaiming Childhood from Cancer
I just got back from counseling at Camp Ronald McDonald for Good Times (CRMFGT) in southern California. For those of you who are not familiar with CRMFGT, it’s a camp for kids whose lives have been upset, transformed or otherwise rearranged by childhood cancer. Campers are survivors – undergoing treatment, in remission, or cured – siblings of survivors, or children who survived losing a brother or sister to cancer. While it might look like a typical camp, it’s anything but typical. This was my second year at Camp and my second year of an absolutely amazing experience.
It’s hard to articulate absolutely amazing because it’s more of a feeling or an idea that can’t quite be translated into words for others to easily access. It’s not something physical that you can touch, yet its there, just as tangible – a feeling of elatedness and connectedness, a fullness of the spirit – rather than a set of descriptive bullet points. At Camp, it’s described as filling your “cup until it overflows with love.” I know this sounds like I just time-warped back to the 1960s but I do believe that we occasionally find those experiences that speak to our humanity in ways that take even us by surprise.
CRMFGT brings together kids with common ground and gives them freedom being different. A lot of the time the fact that they have all been through similar experiences remains an unspoken understanding.
However, even without a single word said, these kids are finally able to be free for the week they are at camp. They know that the person across the table, or across the camp, or the person sleeping in the bunk above them truly understands what they feel. They don’t have to second-guess themselves at camp. All of the sudden, everything feels easier for these kids, or so they have told me.
But, before the kids even get there the counselors, who are all volunteers, go through two days of training. We don’t get much sleep and are moving from 8:00 AM to midnight. In this period, they teach us what it means to be a counselor, and how to help our kids through camp. There are times when you think to yourself: “How am I going to do this? This is just training and I’m already completely exhausted.” But, then the kids show up, and you feel rejuvenated. This year I was assigned to the youngest cabin full of 9-10 year old boys. It was an adventure. They went to bed late, got up at the crack of dawn, and their energy level could run a small village.
Camp is like home – a comfortable and familiar place that campers look forward to coming back to each year. For the counselors, Camp is like family. We build strong and lifelong friendships with each other as well as the doctors, nurses, and other staff.
Like “regular” kids, while they are at camp, they go through activities that teach them independence, teamwork, and self-reliance. The activities can range from something like archery, to having to complete a given task as a team as fast as possible. You see these kids grow, and start to become more and more comfortable with themselves throughout the week. They start working together with things as simple as passing food around the table, and when you notice, all you can do is smile.
Sometimes it feels like the kids are there for us, and not the other way around. The strength that they exude without meaning to, the willingness to jump in and help others, and the resilience that has become an integral part of who they are, provides us, the counselors, with an incredible sense of hope in our own lives.
As a cancer survivor, I understood the experiences of the campers with cancer, and even developed more insight into, and compassion for my younger self. It was not a journey I anticipated or planned for. In terms of the siblings, I knew that, hard as I tried, I could not know what it felt like to lose a brother or sister to cancer. Their experiences were unfathomable to me even though there was less than one degree of separation. It got me thinking to how often we think we know or understand or somehow feel empowered to speak the experiences of others. But, we don’t, we can’t. CRMFGT creates the space for young children to find their solace, their support, their childhoods, their voice, their normal, in a supportive and safe environment. I feel fortunate to be part of that mission.