Children fighting cancer get ray of hope through 4-H, Camp Fantastic partnership

Camp Fantastic campers

Camp Fantastic, which is run by the nonprofit Special Love, allows kids to be kids, to forget for a time that they are battling cancer.

Abby Snider was 15 years old when she had a long string of illnesses that she couldn’t seem to shake.

At first, she had a cough, then an ear infection, then strep throat. Doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong until they found a mass in her chest. They told her she had cancer.

“It was scary, I thought I was going to die,” she remembers. “All I knew was that cancer was something people’s grandparents died from.”

Six months after her diagnosis, she packed her bags for Camp Fantastic, a summer camp for children who have cancer or have recovered from it. At first, she was scared to go and didn’t want to meet kids who she thought were going to die or were losing their hair. But what she found was more than just a community of children going through similar struggles – she found hope.

Over the course of the week at camp, Snider was still getting chemotherapy, but she was also taking cooking classes, going to campfire, making jokes about cancer, and sharing her story with others who understood her struggles better than anyone else.

“It inspired me to keep fighting,” said Snider, now a cancer-free 19-year-old who is a counselor at the camp and is studying to become a pediatric oncology nurse. “I always tell everyone that Camp Fantastic helped me find my fight, because I was ready to give up before I came here.”

Twenty-five years after it started, Camp Fantastic continues to give kids the drive to keep fighting.

The camp was founded in 1983 when Tom and Sheila Baker, who lost their daughter, Julie, to lymphoma, were inspired to start a camp for children with cancer or who were three years past treatment. They approached John Dooley, the then-head of the Northern Virginia 4-H Center in Front Royal, Virginia, about holding the camp at the center. Doctors and nurses from the National Institutes of Health who treated Julie volunteered to oversee medical needs of the first cadre of 29 campers. Camp Fantastic was born.

Over the years, the organization has expanded its offerings to include camps for siblings of cancer patients, outings for cancer patients, and parent get-away weekends, but it still has the same original vision: give children battling cancer a place where they can just be kids.

One of the things that makes it so successful is the long-running partnership between the NIH, the Northern Virginia 4-H Center, and Special Love, the nonprofit the Bakers started that oversees the camp.

Campers at Camp Fantastic

“It inspired me to keep fighting,” one cancer survivor said of her time at Camp Fantastic. Held at the Northern Virginia 4-H Center, the camp has hosted more than 3,500 children over the past 36 years.

“Camp Fantastic was modeled after a traditional 4-H camping program and was intended to be a normal camping experience with medical support added to ensure that even children on active cancer treatment could participate,” said Dave Smith, the senior director of outreach and programs for Special Love. “We’re very proud of our 4-H roots and happy to be able to partner with the Northern Virginia 4-H Center, as well as Airfield 4-H Center in Wakefield, which hosts a spring family camp and a weekend for young adults.”

Clarke Construction is also helping to keep the camp thriving. It recently donated materials and labor to make a number of improvements to the camp’s facilities.

“Partnerships like this go to the heart of 4-H’s mission – to provide opportunities that help youth flourish,” said Jeremy Johnson, director of Virginia 4-H.

“I always love attending Camp Fantastic and seeing the smiles on the kid’s faces” said Tobin Smith, president of the Board of Directors of the Northern Virginia 4-H Educational Center. “The center takes great pride in being able to host this camp each year and to provide an authentic camping experience to this group of kids.”

At first glance, the camp does look like any other 4-H camp. There are boys cannonballing off the diving board, girls scrambling up rock climbing walls, and counselors leading groups to fishing tournaments and trying out Capital One’s virtual reality games.

But there is also a room full of medicine that that NIH stocks every day from its Bethesda, Maryland, headquarters. In another room, kids receive chemotherapy treatment between crafting classes. A small army of doctors and nurses are on hand, though they don’t wear scrubs and instead don goofy hats in the shape of lobsters or sharks. This year, as the campers were putting on a production of Sleeping Beauty, a handful of kids were in the back of the room getting medical treatment while watching the show.

Though there are many camps designed specifically for children with cancer, Camp Fantastic is unique because it accepts some of the sickest kids in the nation.

“The opportunity for kids to interact with their nurses and doctors in a fun environment is one of the many healing aspects of our joint programs with the Northern Virginia 4-H Education Center and Virginia Tech’s Virginia Cooperative Extension,” said Kathy Russell, Camp Fantastic medical administrator.

Virginia Tech President Tim Sands recently visited Camp Fantastic, where he met many of the kids who are battling cancer. The camp is run through a partnership with the National Institutes of Health, the Northern Virginia 4-H Center, and Special Love, the nonprofit that oversees the camp.

Unlike when the children are at school and their friends are uncomfortable asking questions about their treatment, when they see someone at camp who is bald or has a feeding tube, it makes the campers feel more like everyday kids.

“At school, kids don’t know what a g-tube is, they aren’t familiar with medical stuff, and they haven’t been through what I’ve been through,” said Henry G., a 7-year-old with a raspy voice who at one moment can speak about complex medical issues and the next sing his favorite camp song about burritos.

“It’s nice to be around people who understand,” said Colton K., who first met Henry at a local hospital when they were both going through chemotherapy. Colton and Henry used to run around the halls of the hospital, but this summer they got to spend time together splashing in the camp’s pool.

Over the course of the camp’s 36 years, more than 3,500 children have attended Camp Fantastic, and there are countless stories that have made a lasting impression on their fellow campers and counselors.

There is the child who just had his leg amputated and came to camp asking to learn how to ride a bike. By the end of the week, John Dooley, now the CEO of the Virginia Tech Foundation, was running alongside him, holding the boy up as he began pedaling on his own. There is the story of a girl on the verge of death who came to camp in a wheelchair but was dancing with her fellow campers by the end of the week. There are kids who have told the counselors that they are fighting cancer with all they’ve got just so they can get back to camp that summer.

“I had a kid tell me that he feels sorry for kids who don’t have cancer because they don’t get to come to camp,” said Jeremy Webb, who like many of the counselors, is a former camper and cancer survivor. “That’s how much it means to people.”

Jay Robinson came to camp as a 19-year-old fighting a brain tumor. He beat the cancer that year and came back as a counselor the following year – and hasn’t missed a year of camp since.

Like so many other counselors, Robinson said being around the kids fighting so hard buoys his spirits. The week of camp is long and exhausting for volunteers, but they are inspired by how determined the children are.

“They may have cancer, but cancer doesn’t have them,” said Robinson, who is on the board for both Special Love and 4-H.

Though the counselors give good advice, some of the best wisdom campers receive comes from fellow campers.

“I tell them to keep going because if you stop fighting, everyone else will stop fighting, too,” said Ellie W., a 9-year-old who, like so many of the children, seemed to be wise beyond her years.

She had more to say about her own cancer fight, but the campers were taking off their helmets and harnesses from the climbing wall exercise and headed to the swimming pool. She didn’t want to miss a minute of fun.

It was time to go be a kid.

Written by Zeke Barlow

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