Fun can be the unspoken loss that comes with a pediatric cancer diagnosis. When parents—and children—are coping with treatment, side effects, hair loss, weight loss, school absences, there may be little time to left to think or talk about the seemingly less significant sacrifices like time to play, laugh, swim or take a summer vacation.
Fortunately, there is a local nonprofit organization that thinks about life’s simplest pleasures for them. Kids Cancer Alliance is a small but efficient non-profit that began in 1981 as a partnership between Kentucky Cancer Program and a group of volunteers in the Lake Cumberland area and has created one of the largest and longest-running oncology camping programs in the country. “The organization came to be because these people saw a common need: a normal camping experience for kids with cancer,” says acting communications director Lindy Lamkin.
“Being a child with cancer can be very isolating. Everything is thrown off. Their normal lives disappear and cancer takes away so much of their innocence. Summer camp is a way to give that back.”
In its early days, a group of volunteers rallied together to raise funds and provide twenty campers a free sleepaway camp experience (named “Indian Summer Camp”) at Camp Cedarmore in Shelby County. “From the very beginning, we had doctors and nurses on site,” says Lamkin. “They helped kids take their medicine. They could even give them chemo. The medical staff could handle anything and they made it possible for any child to attend.”
The medical staff is one of the points of difference that make the KCA program unique. “It gives the parents incredible peace of mind,” says Lamkin. “They feel much more at ease because of these people and the fact that every medical need can be met.” And there are others. While the camp is always free to campers, the KCA also provides other types of financial assistance to the families to make the camp stress-free. “It costs a thousand dollars per child for a week of camp and we never charge a penny,” she says. “But we also help in other ways. If we sense that transportation is going to be an issue, we send gas cards or make arrangements. If a child shows up with one pair of shorts, we will get them clothes. Cancer comes and bills add up. We do everything we can to help make this experience one thing they don’t have to worry about.”
Once the children are on site—now at larger and more modern Camp Horsing Around in Perryville, they can participate in all of the classic summer camp activities. These include those you’d expect like sports, swimming and arts and crafts— as well as some truly unique once-in-a-lifetime rushes like scuba diving in a pool with firefighters, boating and tubing on Taylorsville lake and a huge dance at the end of the week in donated prom dresses and tuxedos.
The campers enjoy all of these experiences with kids like them. “You can take off your wig and not be stared at,“ says Lamkin. “Kids can take off their legs and jump in the pool and nobody cares.” And, because of the medical staff, every camper can participate in every single activity no matter what their physical limitations are. “At Indian Summer Camp, they aren’t cancer patients anymore,” says Lamkin. “They’re just kids being kids.”
Not surprisingly, the Indian Summer Camp has grown from 20 to more than 100 a year— prompting a decision to break the camp down into two sessions by age. The KCA has also added a unique sibling camp to provide support and fun time for those children who are coping with a brother or sister’s illness. This camp in an outgrowth of their official mission “to enhance the quality of life for children with cancer and their families through recreational and support programs.”
While this mission began with a summer camp, it has morphed into a year of programming designed to create happy moments and special memories for those touched by childhood cancer. There are Family Weekend Retreats, a Meals and More family events at area hospitals, Flashes of Hope (a free portrait event), day camps and teen weekends. Says Lamkin, “All of our programs are designed to enhance the quality of life of these children and their families.”
As the program has expanded and evolved, fundraising efforts have increased. Their first fundraiser was held in a volunteer’s backyard, now it’s next month at the downtown Marriott. “Last year, we had 650 guests, this year, we’d welcome more!”
There is still need for silent auction items, ticket purchases and even set-up help. “We are a small staff of five and we definitely depend on volunteers,” says Lamkin. “We have groups that come in on their lunch hour from Humana and other downtown offices. We have high school and college students who come in to help with paperwork. We’ve even had a preschool group come in to make flower leis for campers. The opportunity exists for individuals of all ages to help. And people do. We have volunteers in our office every day and all of the work they do impacts kids with cancer and their families and improves their lives.”