Chester Gap column for Sept. 4

Camp Fantastic

This year marks the 32nd anniversary of Camp Fantastic at the 4-H Center in Front Royal. More than 100 children between seven and 17 attended from Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. I spent some time at the camp talking with Tom Baker, Tammy Jenkins and Dave Smith.

Tom and his wife Sheila started the camp in 1982 after they lost their daughter to cancer. Tom told me he got the idea for this camp after reading a magazine article about a similar one in upstate New York. He and his wife visited that camp and talked with staff, and from there Camp Fantastic was born.

In the beginning, he worked with doctors from the National Institute of Health (NIH); they continue to be very supportive today. Medical volunteers, including doctors and nurses, come from as far away as Florida, Texas and the West Coast to participate. Tom said one of the things that he most enjoys is when some of the previous camp attendees, who have won their battle with cancer, come back to be counselors.

Pediatric oncology nurse Tammy Jenkins, a nurse at NIH, has volunteered at Camp Fantastic for 19 years. She is responsible for organizing all the medical staff, including more than 25 doctors and nurses, to provide constant care for the children if needed. These volunteers oversee all medications and treatments (including chemotherapy) while the children are attending camp.

Three months before camp starts, she meets with all the campers and their parents to make sure that the team will have everything the child needs for the week away, including any special activity requests. She said that one year a child, who was quadriplegic as the result of a spinal tumor, wanted to go for a ride in a hot air balloon. And while it took nine volunteers, they were able to figure out how to get him in the balloon.

Special Love, a non-profit that raises money to support children with cancer and their families, sponsors Camp Fantastic, along with other family and friend activities throughout the year. Special Love’s CEO Dave Smith started as a camp volunteer 32 years ago.

He told me campers are bused in from throughout the area and meet at the Moose Lodge in Front Royal at the start of camp, and are escorted to the 4-H Center by motorcycles and police. He told me that different organizations in the area sponsor the evening meal throughout the week.

On Tuesday (Aug. 19) of this year’s camp, it was Rappahannock Night, which included food from some of the county’s best dining establishments, served by Rappahannock volunteers to the children, counselors and camp volunteers. Among the many volunteers, some of whom have been participating since the camp’s earliest days, were members of the Rappahannock Lions Club who staffed the kitchen behind the scenes.

While I waited to talk with Dave, I stood in the back of the conference room and watched as the children sorted themselves into various activities for the last part of the morning. As I looked around the room of 100-plus children, I was reminded at what makes this camp a success; the kids are not kids with cancer, just kids being kids.

One of their mottos at Camp Fantastic is, “How can we make this happen for a child?” Not, “I’m sorry but we can’t.” Words we all can — and should — live by. For more information about Special Love, including volunteer opportunities, visit