Spending quality time at camp

Suzi Starheim

Children with terminal illnesses may not always get the opportunity to enjoy their childhood to the full extent, but one local camp is finding a way to help kids with cancer do just this.

Camp Quality is a national, non-profit support system for children ages four to 18 with cancer. Mary Beth Palmer, camp assistant director and head of crafts for Camp Quality Ohio, said camp is a break away from the routine of treatment, hospital stays and the day-to-day demands of living with cancer.

“If we can give them a week away, just one really fun week, that’s what it’s all about,” Palmer said.

Camp Quality Ohio had its first summer camp in 1997 – with only 12 campers. By 2008, the camp had 94 campers.

While campers and their families are what keep Camp Quality Ohio going, companions also play an important role.

Companions are adults who donate a week of their time for the camp. They are paired with a camper 24 hours a day, insuring a fun and safe week and building a life-long bond.

Becoming a Camp Quality volunteer

1. If you are interested in volunteering, e-mail [email protected] for an application.

2. Filling out an application is the first step, and a face-to-face interview follows.

3. Then, there is an eight-hour day of training before camp begins. Companions and campers are matched after the interaction that occurs this day.

4. After each camper has a companion, the companions receive information on the campers, so they can contact the campers and their families to introduce themselves.

Volunteers are needed year-round for the camp.

-Carol Cross, Companion coordinator of Camp Quality Ohio

Samantha Hall, senior business management major, has been a companion at Camp Quality for the past three years and plans on making this summer’s camp her fourth. She has been paired with the same camper for all three years.

Hall said most of the companions are college students and said she thinks the campers like this because this makes most of the companions closer to their own age.

Hall said this camp is as fun for companions as it is for the campers.

“All companions get to do almost everything the kids get to do,” Hall said. “It’s not like you are just there volunteering, you get to have fun, too.”

Hall said amidst the fun, the most rewarding part of this camp for her has been seeing all the kids and how happy they are. She said her favorite thing about the week of camp is not being able to tell the difference between the campers with cancer and their siblings.

“I have loved watching her (Hall’s camper), her friends and some of the other kids that I don’t know but see every year grow up,” Hall said.

Companion coordinator Carol Cross said although she began at Camp Quality as a companion five years ago, she still gets to watch the campers evolve from their experiences at camp.

“The most rewarding part of this job for me is watching the courage that each of these children exhibits on a daily basis,” Cross said. “If you stand in the middle of the field and close your eyes, all you can hear is laughter and feet. They live life to the fullest and just have a great time.”

Cross said she plans on being a part of Camp Quality until she can physically no longer make it to camp. She said the camp’s oldest companion is 82 years old, and Cross said she hopes this camp is a lifelong job for her as well.

Palmer has been involved at Camp Quality since Fall 1997. She became involved after her husband, who was diagnosed with cancer, was a companion at the first camp.

After Palmer’s husband passed away in 2001, she began to use her skills as an art teacher by running the craft area of the camp.

“We try to give them activities that they can learn something from, so if they are ever cooped up at home they know how to do stuff around the house,” Palmer said.

Along with playing a large role in the daily craft activities at the camp, Palmer visits Akron Children’s Hospital to give year-round support. She puts together bags of crayons, coloring books and other assorted craft supplies and gives them to kids going through chemotherapy. She calls these craft bags “Camp Quality Cares.”

“A lot of these kids we will never meet, and they will never come to camp,” Palmer said, “but we still support them.”

Other activities available throughout the year are a reunion, gift-making, a family weekend, a teen ski weekend, a bowling extravaganza and a Super Kids Classic race. Cross said these activities continue the relationships and support from camp, and they establish new relationships with children who were unable to attend camp.

According to a Camp Quality brochure, medical needs are easily accommodated by the camp. Medical staff volunteers are available 24 hours a day during the week-long camp. Simple treatments and medications may be continued at camp, and children who need hospital treatments are also accommodated and usually return to camp the same day.

The camp, which depends completely on the donations of individuals, businesses, organizations and foundations, is free of charge for campers and their families. Campers come from designated hospitals all over Ohio.

This summer’s camp will be held July 12-18 at Craftsman Park in Akron. The theme is “Heroes Are Us,” so the focus is on community heroes all the way up to military and comic book heroes. Each of the kids will be making his or her own hero cape, and at the end of the week there will be a parade of heroes based off the heroes the campers have created for themselves.

“We hope we give the kids the best week we can,” Palmer said, “so that when they are going through treatment they can think back to their week of camp and remember how good it is.”

Contact features correspondent Suzi Starheim at [email protected].