Cancer camp for kids to keep on reaching

Volunteers step up after American Cancer Society steps down

ktanner@thetribunenews.comMarch 20, 2014 

A free weekend camp for young Central Coast cancer victims and their families held in Cambria since its founding is moving to a new location this year — and had been in danger of not happening at all — because former sponsor, the American Cancer Society, is no longer contributing to camps at all, according to an organizer of Camp Reach for the Stars.

The camp is designed to combat the emotional roller coaster and sense of social isolation that can so often be predictable side effects of a pediatric cancer diagnosis. This year’s camp is set for June 6 through 8.

San Luis Obispo nonprofit Jack’s Helping Hand, which has been a Reach for the Stars participant for years, came to the rescue and is now providing the camp with nonprofit status, some oversight and assistance.

The committee also will need a lot of help from the communities that have contributed so much in the past. Typically about 20 to 25 families attend.

For more than 20 years, Reach for the Stars was held at Cambria’s Camp Yeager, off Weymouth Street, with activities that included a special party hosted by the Cambria Lions Club at the Pinedorado Grounds on Main Street. 

This year, because of the timing of the separation from the cancer society, the Camp Yeager reservation was lost. The committee that runs Reach for the Stars was able to reserve Rancho El Chorro, “the only other suitable camp” into which the campers are allowed to bring their own food, according to nurse-practitioner Jessica Malone of San Luis Obispo. 

However, with increased rental and other expenses, Malone said, this year’s camp budget is 50 percent higher than it was last year. Grants and private donations from businesses and individuals pay for the camp, which includes accommodations, healthy meals, campfire activities, arts and crafts, music and entertainment, sports, games, support groups and more.

The sponsoring committee hopes to return to Camp Yeager next year.

Malone, who also is an oncology nurse at Stanford University Medical Center, is one of a host of medical and other volunteers who are the backbone and heart of the camp. She said the Cancer Society is “focusing more on research now. But we, as a committee, are determined that the camp is going to continue.”

She said other members of the core committee include: 

• Malone’s husband, San Luis Obispo hematologist Jim Malone. 

• Darcy Watt, a pediatric oncology nurse at Stanford who grew up in Cayucos and has been involved with the camp for more than 20 years.

• Anne Fontenot, an oncology nurse at French Hospital began volunteering with Camp Reach for the Stars in 1994.

• Faith Ann Fieldhouse, another camp founder and a nurse with the San Luis Obispo office of physician Dan Lewis.

• Krissy Shippey, a social worker for Family Care Network in San Luis Obispo.

• Camille Johnson, a marriage family therapist in San Luis Obispo.

• Mary Okomoto, a pediatric nurse practitioner in Jim Malone’s office. 

In many cases, a committee member’s entire family becomes involved. For instance, Watts started as the camp’s first teen counselor in the late 1990s, after her father’s bluegrass band had provided music for several years for the Friday night welcoming dinner. 

According to Steve Watt, she’s now a pediatric ICU nurse and still involved with the camp, as are her parents and sisters. “It’s a wonderful thing they do” at the camp, he said, which is “very much about the how living with cancer affects the whole family. This is the only break some of the families get all year long … it gives them the opportunity to just breathe and not be overwhelmed by their situation … to share with other people, so they’re not so buried in their own morass of emotion.”

Camp history

The camp was launched in 1993 as a one-day event sponsored by the Oncology Nursing Society, with members such as former Cambria resident Rosie Cullen and Fieldhouse. 

The camp expanded a year later to a full weekend, and soon included the Pinedorado party, the brainchild of former Cambria resident John Tays. 

The camp provides housing, meals and a full range of activities for cancer patients ranging in age from toddlers to 18. The experience provides a rare opportunity for cancer patients to play with and learn from their medical peers, and for family members to discover that they, too, are not alone in what they’re going through. Some young patients return year after year, and a few continue on as counselors after their 18th birthdays. 

Parents, siblings and other family members are encouraged to attend because, with a cancer patient in their midst, each of them faces unique sets of problems. The camp gives them a carefree, bonding “time out” to just be a family and enjoy each other.

And it’s all provided free.

Volunteers and donors

Those who want to help have various ways to do it.

People can volunteer to help, with opportunities that could include providing musical and other entertainment, doing face painting, making balloon animals or toys, cooking, cleaning, counseling, teaching crafts, teaching about flora and fauna, providing gifts for the children, and leading sing-along’s, hikes, campfire activities or support groups.

To participate, contact Malone at jessmarieh@yahoo.com

Send donations to Jack’s Helping Hand (mark the check for Reach for the Stars and send it to P.O. Box 14718, San Luis Obispo, CA 93406, or follow the links at www.jackshelpinghand.org). 

Jack’s Helping Hand’s programs help families, professionals and the community to meet the unique unmet physical, mental and medical needs of special children and young adults until they turn 21. For details, call 547-1914.

Follow Kathe Tanner on Twitter at @CambriaReporter.

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