COURTESY PHOTO | Some of Camp Adventure’s campers and staff at Quinipet during the summer of 2012.
Cancer. At it’s worst, it’s life-threatening, but even when that’s not the case, it’s disruptive for any patient and family.
But it’s worse on every level when the patient is a child.
Enter Camp Adventure, which for one week each year offers a sense of normalcy to pediatric cancer patients and their siblings. Shelter Island’s Quinipet has been Camp Adventure’s home since 2000. This Saturday 147 children and mostly volunteer staff members — counselors, nurses and doctors — will be descending on what many have come to think of as their home away from home.
A typical camp day includes programs similar to what other summer camps offer — swimming, arts and crafts, sports and nature. But there are also group sessions during the day to address campers’ feelings and there are special ceremonies during the week to honor those who have lost their battles with cancer.
Each night, the camp turns into a very special place with various themes.
One night there will be a carnival atmosphere to celebrate Festivus that “Seinfeld” fans will recall was a made up holiday spoofing Christmas celebrations. Another night, the campers will celebrate the Fourth of July in August, replete with fireworks.
And Shelter Island firefighters show up one night after a mass shaving cream fight to hose down the campers and then host a barbecue for them. There’s also a Thanksgiving celebration during the camp week and a day-long field day.
But as special as the other camp activities are, the campers generally say it’s evenings back in their cabins where they’re able to talk with one another that they most prize. It’s where the bonding begins.
There’s nothing normal about growing up as a cancer patient. Just ask Karissa Carey, now 23, and Scott Sivco, now 24, who were ripped from their childhoods when they were diagnosed.
Ms. Carey has been cancer free now for 10 years while Mr.Sivco is in remission. They first came to Camp Adventure as children and now are volunteer staff members.
“I was very anti-social,” Ms. Carey said about her life prior to coming to the to the camp.
The program, designed to give the children and their siblings a week of fun and not dominated by their illnesses, helped her as she prepared to return to high school after treatments and put her “on the way to being normal,” she said.
Her relationship with her twin brother became strained in those years when her parents’ focus was so much on her illness that he might have felt pushed aside, she said.
“I thought he hated me, but he really wanted to be there for me,” she said, expressing sadness at their drifting apart during her illness. But there’s a renewed closeness now, she added.
Classmates taunted “the cancer boy,” Mr. Sivco said. He wasn’t one of the group, but was sidelined because of his illness.
“You grow up in some ways but not in others,” he said. One of four children, he soon realized his parents’ concern with him took them away from his brothers and sisters.
Camp Adventure is an experience that “from the outside you can’t understand, and from the inside you can’t explain,” Mr. Sivco said about the program’s impact on his life.
Both now consider Camp Adventure a central part of their lives — not just for the week each summer they spend on the Island, but for the ongoing relationships that thrive throughout the year.
The real challenge Camp Adventure faces this year is that the American Cancer Society that functioned as the program’s parent through funding and administrative resources has cut the program from its budget, making it necessary for organizers to add administrative duties and fundraising to keep the camp functioning and growing, according to Melissa Firmes, co-founder of Copiague’s Motivational Recovery Environments, Inc., the new parent of Camp Adventure.
It costs about $2,000 a year to send a kid to Camp Adventure, Ms. Firmes said. Toward that end, she and her business partner David Lewis are organizing fund raising events and seeking grants.
“I’m in a panic about what we have to do, but I am sure it’s going to happen,” she said. “Cancer is touching all of us. It doesn’t miss anyone.”
Camp Adventure began at Camp DeWolfe in Wading River and then Peconic Dunes in Riverhead. But as enrollment grew from 60 to now almost 150, more space was needed and the program to Quinipet. Parents refer to their camp now as their “Island in the Sun” and are grateful to the community and its response. They want to give back, and noted if there’s any community project that can use their labor, they’re confident they can put together a squad of volunteers to help.
“We consider Shelter Island our camp family,” Ms. Firmes said.
She first became involved with the program while she was a special education teacher with a summer off and “thought it would be something nice I could do. I had no idea it would change my life,” she said.
Jaime Pacheco works with Ms. Firmes. She came to the Camp Adventure program after growing up with a friend who had cancer.
“I was almost afraid,” she admitted when first dealing with her friend’s diagnosis. “But I just treated her like she was normal” and it turned out that was exactly what the girl needed — someone who would see her for who she was and not simply as someone with a serious illness.