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Frenetic pace delights kids at camp for kids with cancer

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO Foaming fun at Camp Quinipet during its annual shaving cream fight. Camp Adventure has moved on campus for the week for children with cancer.
Foaming fun at Camp Quinipet during its annual shaving cream fight. Camp Adventure has moved on campus for the week for children with cancer.

A ride through Camp Adventure on August 11 found suitcases and gear strewn throughout the area as campers — pediatric cancer patients and their siblings — arrived for a week-long respite from the stressful day-to-day logistics of their conditions.

Kids taking a break from hospitals, doctors and painful therapies scrambled to find their sleeping quarters so they could settle in for a week of fun and reunions with old friends.

The following day, 15 others from upstate New York and New Jersey joined the group at Camp Quinipet, flown into East Hampton Airport by Patient Airlift Services (PALS). Of those, six arrived by plane and nine by helicopter.

The volunteer pilots provide free transportation to individuals needing medical diagnoses or treatment, military personnel and their families and others in need.

In the run-up to camp, one young child was considered too ill to join her two siblings. She was devastated, her family said, at not being able to come, but PALS stepped in and flew her here, even though she knew she could only stay half the week before returning home for treatments.

The medical staff — doctors and nurses who volunteer their time each year — rallied to be sure the young girl would be taken care of during her days at camp. The PALs staff not only agreed to fly the girl home in time for her scheduled medical treatments, but would return at week’s end to take her siblings home.

The pace at camp this year has been busier than past years. A look at Camp Director Melissa Firmes-Ray’s schedule included: making sure older campers going to Greenport for the afternoon are at the waterfront to meet the boat; delivering the food to the cafeteria for Tuesday night’s barbecue — an event the Island’s firefighters host, assisted by police and other volunteers; making sure the campers due for massages are showing up for their appointments; checking with parents if an unplanned activity on they hadn’t previously signed off is acceptable for their child; answering staff questions; and greeting day volunteers who need to be direction for the day.

And, oh, trying to shovel in a spoonful of lunch in between, Ms. Firmes-Ray said.

This year, with more “medically fragile” campers and younger children than usual, the atmosphere is more frenetic than in past years, she said.

Ms. Firmes-Ray was smiling during an interview with the Reporter. She and her husband, John Ray, continue to work to make the children’s stay a happy one, even through the time in 2014 they learned she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and had to undergo a stem cell transplant to save her life.

“I’m not special because I do the work that I do,” she said. “The schedule is so jammed packed it can’t fit anymore activities,” she added, smiling while fielding calls for assistance and dispatching an assistant to carry out some organizational responsibilities. It takes a staff of 120 to make it happen and some of the medical personnel will be traveling each day from off-Island, she said, because there isn’t enough housing at Quinipet or in private homes on the Island to accommodate them all.

As Ms. Firmes-Ray started the week, she reported feeling much better. Mr. Ray confirmed she seems to be bouncing back.

“I hope it’s not just the adrenalin rush of camp starting,” she said.

Camp Adventure was initiated by the American Cancer Society, but when funding tightened up, the organization had to cut the program. Ms. Firmes-Ray and co-director David Lewis along with a host of volunteers went to work to form their own 501(c)3 tax-exempt organization, Kids Need More, to raise money and keep Camp Adventure thriving.
Although the week-long camp is the centerpiece, there are activities throughout the year to support children coping with severe health issues.

Islanders have been supportive of Camp Adventure — some opening their homes to host staff members, others baking for Wednesday night’s annual dance, and still others volunteering services to help with activities for the campers.

Lucille Naar-Saladino of the MainStage Dance Academy in Greenport was at the camp on Monday to teach dancing. Tuesday brought Janis Stoller of Mount Sinai and Michele Mattei of Medford with their therapy dogs, Comet and Sadie, to provide calming moments for the children. Later in the day was the annual shaving cream fight that, as is tradition, brought out the Shelter Island Department firefighters to hose the kids down.

Judging by the level of activity, an uninformed visitor would have no idea this was a camp program for some seriously ill children.

On Thursday night, campers and staff will gather for a memorial and bonfire to remember those campers from past ears who lost their battle with cancer.

When they leave on Friday, all indications are it will be mostly with memories of the fun they had all week, just being kids, not patients.

“That’s what we’re here for,” Ms. Firmes-Ray said.