Tag Archives: health

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


Wellness Display at Portsmouth City Hall creates increased health awareness for National Nutrition Month

2018 National Nutrition Month Display in Portsmouth City Hall

VCE-City of Portsmouth’s National Nutrition Month Nutrition and Wellness Display in Portsmouth’s City Hall

In 2015, the Virginia County Health Rankings (Robert Wood Johnson Foundation), which measures the overall health of each county in all 50 states, ranked the City of Portsmouth at 118th for its health performance. The health ranking is one of the tools used to determine the need for educational and community-based health programs in an area.

In addition, the Healthy People 2020 Initiative (Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotions) now encourages the development of programs and partnerships that can make a difference in communities’ health outcomes. Employee wellness programs were especially noted for gains in disease prevention and injury and improvement in health and quality of life.

According to the Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Situation Analysis Survey, City of Portsmouth citizens reported that the most important issue regarding health and wellness is learning healthy eating habits and nutrition.


Each year in March, Crystal Barber — the Family and Consumer Sciences Extension Agent and registered dietitian for the VCE–City of Portsmouth office — incorporates National Nutrition Month (NNM) campaign messages, along with research-based information provided by VCE to support individual and family health education needs.

The 2018 NNM event was held in the Portsmouth City Hall lobby, and 225 individuals visited the exhibit. To help promote the theme, “Go Further With Food,” free handouts on nutrition and wellness, upcoming programs, and incentives were provided. Assisting with this effort were Anthem Healthcare representative Lelani Lawrence and Portsmouth Public library staff member LuKendra Banks.

Healthy eating samples were set up to educate participants about making healthy food and drink choices. Cabot Cheese donated several varieties of portioned, sliced cheese, nutrition and wellness educational brochures, and recipes.

The Department of Parks and Recreation and Leisure Services Assistant Director Mark Palamarchuck helped with food storage and setup for cold items to ensure the safety of perishable healthy snacks. The Portsmouth Public Library provided a list of nutrition and wellness books by credible authors that addressed current nutrition trends. The Portsmouth Department of Marketing, Communications, and Tourism donated City of Portsmouth giveaways.

Master Food Volunteer Regina Jones and FCS Occasional Volunteer Regina Hines also assisted with the event.


Comments were submitted by 52 of the 225 participants:

  • 98 percent of participants stated that the display was very informative and well-organized;
  • 95 percent of participants stated that the program increased their knowledge about nutrition, wellness, and other VCE programs.

Comments received:

  • “Love the way the information was provided across the life span.”
  • “This event encourages people to keep a healthy lifestyle.”
  • “The free handouts on the tables were very informative. Some info I can share with my family.”
  • “The event has been beneficial for me. Every year, I learn something from the interaction and the handouts, and enjoy the healthy snacks. There have been some that I actually purchased while shopping for groceries, for example, hummus.”
  • “Love the setup. Really looking forward to speaking to the dietitian in-depth.”
  • “The presenters were knowledgeable and friendly, and I loved the healthy snacks and Portsmouth incentives.”
  • “This event has given me new motivation, and I plan to enroll in the VCE Diabetes Prevention Program.”
  • “Please continue to be seen at City Hall on a regular basis as a reminder to us that ‘We Are What We Eat.'”
  • “It was great to get so much valuable information on nutrition and wellness. I also got lots of info on the Master Gardeners.”
  • “This was a great opportunity for the employees of Portsmouth to learn about nutrition. The display is very informative, and the programs are wonderful.”


Mark Palamarchuck suggested that the Department of Parks and Recreation become more involved in the event. It was determined that a National Nutrition Month Wellness Display Planning Committee should be established for next year’s event. Current and new partners, including city employees and residents, are invited to become a part of this impactful effort geared towards improving the health of our city.

Please contact Crystal Barber at 757-393-5125 if you are interested in serving on this committee.


Virginia Cooperative Extension employees increase colorectal cancer screening rates by 20 percent

Colorectal cancer is the third-most commonly diagnosed and third-most fatal cancer in men and in women in the United States and Virginia. New screening methods have allowed for both the early detection of colorectal cancer and its prevention through the removal of intestinal polyps before they become cancerous. Early detection of colorectal cancer is crucial to successful treatment and increases survival rates from 13.1 percent, when discovered at an advanced stage, to 90 percent, if detected at an early, localized stage. In addition to screenings, a healthy lifestyle that includes regular exercise, a healthy eating pattern, and appropriate weight maintenance is pivotal to decreasing risk of colorectal cancer.

Eighty by 2018 emblem

In February 2016, Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) joined the National Colorectal Cancer Roundtable’s “80% by 2018 Initiative” to eliminate colorectal cancer as a public health issue. Conducted for VCE employees, a colorectal cancer awareness campaign urged eligible members to get screened for colorectal cancer and encouraged everyone to adopt healthy lifestyle practices that reduce colorectal cancer risk. The campaign’s key message is that “colorectal cancer is preventable, treatable, and beatable.”

The campaign resulted in healthful changes in diet, exercise, and screening. VCE staff reported increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables they eat every day and substituting white meats for red and processed meats. Half of those asked said they had started exercising, and many increased the time or intensity of their exercise. Most importantly, the actual colorectal cancer screening rate among all VCE employees increased from 52.7 percent in fiscal year 2016 to 73.3% in fiscal year 2017 — a 20.6 percent increase in screening.

The goal within VCE is to reach a colorectal cancer screening rate of 80 percent by 2018, but we are going beyond just educating ourselves. Extension agents are introducing the initiative to the communities they serve. Agents will work with employers in their counties to conduct the “Colon Cancer Free Zone” worksite campaign, which increases employee awareness of colorectal cancer as a preventable disease and helps move them to action. If we work together, we can reach the goal of 80 percent colorectal cancer screening of all eligible Virginians by 2018.

If interested in conducting the “Colon Cancer Free Zone” campaign at your worksite, please contact Carlin Rafie at crafie@vt.edu or 540-231-3162.


Extension is ahead of the curve on new food safety rules

Adrianna Vargo, director of grower services at Charlottesville’s Local Food Hub, has collaborated with Virginia Cooperative Extension to get critical information to growers regarding the Food and Drug Administration’s new Food Safety Modernization Act. Its aim is to make the food supply safer by shifting the focus from responding to food contamination problems to preventing them from occurring. The policy is the most sweeping reform of U.S. food safety laws for both human and animal foods in 70 years.

As part of its grower services program, the Local Food Hub’s Adrianna Vargo conducts a mock audit of Singing Earth Farm in Augusta County.

As part of its grower services program, the Local Food Hub’s Adrianna Vargo conducts a mock audit of Singing Earth Farm in Augusta County.

Vargo and Extension have acted as boots-on-the-ground liaisons for more than 60 growers throughout Virginia and in North Carolina by providing critical workshops to ensure producers will be able to comply with FSMA legislation.

“One of the aspects of this legislation that has been a huge concern for growers is water testing. FSMA requires so many more water tests throughout the growing season,” Vargo said. “Extension has been an invaluable resource for training. They have been very inclusive and responsive to growers’ needs.”

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Tracking and stopping human and agricultural viruses

Viruses are molecular thieves that take from their hosts under the cloak of darkness. But now a Virginia Tech scientist has found a way to not only track viral hijackers, but also to potentially stop them from replicating.

Xiaofeng Wang, assistant professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science

Xiaofeng Wang, assistant professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science

The discovery has broad-ranging applications in stopping viral outbreaks such as hepatitis C in humans and a number of viruses in plants and animals because it applies to many viruses in the largest category of viral classes — positive-strand RNA viruses.

“Even though these viruses infect very different hosts, they all replicate similarly across the board, so what we learn from one virus can potentially be translated to control viruses in agricultural production as well as human health,” said Xiaofeng Wang, an assistant professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Wang’s findings could target any number of plant viruses by developing sprays to halt the virus, which would save the agricultural sectors millions of dollars.

Wang used the brome mosaic virus to study how viral infections start. He found that by inhibiting host lipid cell synthesis, the viral replication stopped.

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