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The Magic of Summer at Camp Fantastic

The Magic of Summer at Camp Fantastic

With summer now behind us, we thought it would be a good time to reflect on one of the special experiences our science policy analyst, Diana Merino, had over the summer…

This summer, for the second year in a row, I got to spend a week volunteering at Camp Fantastic, a camp that provides an adventure-packed week for children with cancer. Every summer since 1983, approximately 100 children arrive at the Front Royal 4-H Center ready to experience the magic of camp—a safe place that encourages them to forget about diagnoses and medical procedures, and relearn what it means to be a kid again. It is through canoeing, swimming, rock climbing, dancing, and nighttime bonfires that kids forget about needles, hospital visits, and how terrible treatment made them feel.

Children at Camp Fantastic gather around for a bonfire

At camp, kids meet peers who understand their fears, and look up to former campers who return as counselors. Kids learn to rise above a cancer diagnosis and experience the freedom of not being treated any different from other kids. This is exactly the medicine they need to continue their fight against the disease that took their carefree childhood away.

This year, just like any of the other 9 years that I have been a counselor at different camps for kids with cancer, I was pleasantly surprised by so many demonstrations of kindness and care among the campers. Take Cathy*, for example, a frail-looking but feisty and fun 11-year old with leukemia, who arrived at camp in the middle of treatment and had to go to the infirmary for a blood transfusion. You would expect her to be sad or upset about missing out on camp activities, but she was giggling and chatting with her cabinmates who went to the infirmary to keep her company. This wasn’t odd to them. They had all gone through the drill and were even sharing their own transfusion anecdotes. Later that night, Cathy was back with her cabin, having fun as she danced with more than twenty girls at the cabin’s dance party.

Enjoying Science class. At Camp, campers have the opportunity to learn new things and dream about their future…

Spencer* loves sports and by the way he plays you wouldn’t know that in his short 15 years, he has had to battle against leukemia. As part of the week-long golf class I was instructing, we were invited to play a few holes at the local golf course. When planning the foursomes for our day at the course, I told Spencer that he could pair up with the older teenagers so that they could go at a faster pace than the younger campers, many of whom had never touched a golf club. He quickly told me that he would prefer to pair up with a young boy who was struggling with his swing so that he could instruct him and take him “under his wing”. I was surprised by Spencer’s thoughtfulness and compassion, and as I reflected on this, I realized that camp provides many opportunities like this, where kids get to be kind to one another, no matter their age, where they come from, or their physical limitations.

Camp Fantastic has been running for well over three decades thanks to the energy and enthusiasm of many volunteers and donors. Due to space and resource constraints, Camp Fantastic is only available to kids who are treated in hospitals in Virginia, DC, and Maryland, and only for 3 years after treatment. But it is my hope that the magic of camp will be made accessible to all kids with cancer, across the world and throughout their childhood. We are making great strides in incorporating the complementary therapeutic benefits of camp to kids with cancer, and I look forward to a not-so-distant future where camp will be prescribed as treatment to all childhood cancer patients.

Check out what a week at Camp Fantastic look like:

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*Names were changed for confidentiality 


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