The stately grounds of St. Andrew's School were transformed into a safe haven for children battling cancer last week when Kay's Kamp returned for its fifth year. Nearly 50 children attended this year, looking for a reprieve from treatments, doctor visits and worried adults. Like other kids, though, they were also mostly just looking for fun.
"Camp is awesome," said 10-year-old Kimya, who returned for her fourth year last week. "You get to do fun things. We play in the pool, go canoeing and play crazy games."
Canoeing and "crazy games" may not sound realistic for children combating cancer but co-founder Laurie Warren said that people shouldn't underestimate what these kids can do.
"We only talk about what the kids can do, not what they can't do," Warren said. "There's always a way to make it happen. We even have one girl in a wheelchair who was doing the limbo."
Warren and her husband, Bill, know about childhood cancer first-hand. Their 17-year-old daughter Kaylyn was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, battling the disease for more than a year before she passed away in 2007. The camp was a dream for Kaylyn that the Warrens have been able to honor annually since 2009 when they brought the state's first oncology camp to Clayton, then Middletown.
Like all other oncology camps, Kay's Kamp is completely free for the children who attend.
"We'll never turn a child with cancer away," Warren said, explaining that they'd even take children from across the country who might require airfare and extra accommodations. "Every child deserves this experience so we'll just do whatever it takes.
To stoke the kids' enthusiasm, a theme is picked each year for the following year. Last year, a pair of creative 10-year-olds suggested this year's theme, "Every Day is a Holiday." Cara, one half of the imaginative duo said that she thought it was something that all the kids would enjoy.
"It's really fun when you get to celebrate a holiday and this week is full of them," she said midway through camp last week.
But, she was already thinking ahead to next year, adding that a theme that incorporated space, cruise ships or the movies would be really fun, too.
On Friday, though, the new theme selected for next year was "Time Traveling Adventures." Warren said that a trio of boys picked it but that her staff will start tossing around ideas and concepts to bring the idea to life.
Speaking of the staff, Warren took the opportunity then to gush about their hard work, creativity, dedication and rapport with the children.
Page 2 of 2 - "People look to Bill and I and thank us but all we've done is make sure that the right people are running it," Warren said. "But, it's hard to get them to talk about themselves. A lot of them take a back seat when that opportunity comes up because they see it as a team effort."
Out of the vast amount of people who donate their time and skills, though, Warren said that three staff members in particular are responsible for the good time that the kids have day in and day out. They include Operations Director Bob Hawatt who brings years of oncology camp experience to planning the daily activities of the children; Medical Coordinator Mary Ellen McKnight who organizes more than 40 nurses and five doctors so the children have around-the-clock medical care; and, Camp Director Gretchen Loose, who oversees the counselors. Loose is somewhat of a legend with campers and counselors alike, allowing herself to be the butt of jokes (campers routinely shove birthday cake in her face) and sneaking in quality time with younger kids by reading to them at night.
Annie McGehrin is one of Loose's junior counselors, also known as a "leaders in training." McGehrin, who had the same type of cancer as the camp's namesake Kaylyn, has been at the camp since its first year. She's heading off to study art at the Delaware College of Art and Design in Wilmington in a few weeks but she couldn't miss camp.
"There's such a sense of family here," McGehrin explained. "Everyone loves everyone and it's easy to feel comfortable here because you know that people know what you've gone through."
Warren said that if she had her way, all the campers would come back as counselors. Some, like Kimya, have already expressed interest in being able to do that.
Other campers, like 10-year-old first-timer Camila, are just hoping for a repeat of this year. Camila is from Peru and came to the United States for a bone marrow transplant in March 2012. She thinks her family will be going home soon, though.
"It's awesome," she said. "On my first day, I was nervous because I don't know so much English. On the second day, I wasn't nervous at all. I was just happy. I really hope I get come back next year."