A ‘Fantastic’ camp for kids with cancer

By Jed Duvall
Special to the Rappahannock News

The Camp is called “Camp Fantastic” and the fight is the battle that children are waging, day-in and day-out against cancer. All sorts of cancer and all sorts of kids.

Once a year cancer doctors and nurses gather more than a hundred youngsters who have been diagnosed with one form of the disease or another, and offer them a week at camp — away from their parents and from day-to-day pressures facing a sick kid.

Children working their way down one of two food lines, with Sperryville Fire & Rescue volunteers (left to right) Mike Leake, Chuckie Jenkins, and Richie Burke serving in the background. By Don Audette

There are all sorts of camp activities, and for the Rappahannock Lions Club, the Tuesday night each year is a special occasion. Some 30 Lions, 25 of the men and five of their wives, participate in serving the dinner at a camp pavilion on the grounds of the 4H Center just outside Front Royal.

The Lions have a lot of getting ready to do. They start planning in June for a mid-August event for 300 hungry people. Fried chicken, hoagies, and pizza head the menu. Exactly 109 kids this year, the 2018 Camp Fantastic. Two hundred others at the tables, including physicians and nurses. A small group of adults who are valued donors who help pay for the week. And no parents.

For the Lions, it is an effort that goes back more than 30 years. Joel Daczewitz comes over and sits down, very much at ease, to tell about his 31 years serving dinner at Camp Fantastic. Don Audette brought his camera to the affair, to make a record as he does every year. (You can read Don’s chronicle and see his photos at rappahannocklions.org/lion-news/).

There are other volunteers, too. Jay Powell and his bandmates in Blues Fuze from Front Royal make a noise that sometimes seems to lift the roof of the pavilion, and the youngsters simply love it. Rappahannock Sheriff Connie Compton brings a handful of deputies to prepare and hand out cotton candy and sno-cones.

The camp goes all week, and Rotary Clubs in the area do the hosting on other days. But the Lions like to think that their Tuesday night servings of pizza and fried chicken and hoagies is the favorite of the young clientele, because it gives them what they like.

The Lions also observe, and the oncologists back them up on this, that the children appear healthier in recent years than they did when Camp Fantastic first got going in the late 1980s. It seems that fewer and fewer of the young patients show up without any hair. Indeed, “Doctor Steve” — full name Stephen Chanock — reports that “treatment is improving,” adding that “long-term survival is improving,” too.

The camp happens every year; only about a handful of the kids will not make it to another August.

Asked about the doctors and nurses who volunteer to spend the week at Camp Fantastic, Dr. Steve said “You’d be surprised at the number of docs” who volunteer, adding, “it is an infectious experience.” Having the Lions make the effort to put on such a huge dinner “makes a huge difference,” he said, gives the place “a different spirit.”

There were 111 cancer kids at the camp this year; two missed the Lions dinner and were treated at a clinic elsewhere on the Four-H campus.

Among the 200 other people were roughly 100 other kids, all of whom, Dr. Steve emphasized, have been diagnosed with cancer. “Every one,” he said.

So who makes this all happen? Charlotte Turnmeyer quietly applied paints to the face of anyone who wanted to look “Bonkers” — which was the theme of the picnic. Lots of people, young and old, adopted the Bonkers look. Donna Brune is very good at creating table settings, and that is what she did throughout the picnic pavilion.

The big sturdy men at the food line, serving tirelessly, are members of the Volunteer Fire Company of Sperryville (good buddies of the Lions). The Washington Baptist Church was represented, as usual, by Sandra Jenkins, who handled cookies, drinks, and half of the popular mac ’n cheese. So where does the pizza come from? Year in and year out, ever since President Reagan was in office, Marie Davis has been arranging donations of pizza. This year, like in the recent past, the pizza came from The Melting Pot in Front Royal.

Now, with all this, somebody has to bring bottles and bottles of water and then make sure it is cold. That’s the work of Amissville’s Jan Makela. She also prepares the other half of the ten large batches of mac ‘n cheese.

Quiche was provided for the crowd by two notable eateries in the county: The Inn at Little Washington and Griffin Tavern in Flint Hill. And corn-on-the-cob came from Muskrat Haven Farm.

Two important ladies to mention: Beverly Atkins is the chair of the Camp Fantastic Committee and Linda Baldwin represents the 4-H in Rappahannock. If this whole operation was military, these two would have the most stars.

But what about the Camp, the whole week? Who sets all this up? The answer is the organization Special Love, based in Winchester. And the man who runs the “outreach” of Special Love is Dave Smith. That means Camp Fantastic is his baby.

So are two other week-long summer camps Special Love offers: one for siblings of children with cancer, and one for families.

What’s a week of this sort of camp cost? Who’s paying? It is all free for the kids. If you would like to write a check to cover all of next year’s costs, plan on writing out about $280,000 and leave room for change.

Dave Smith of Special Love is a special story himself. “Right out of college” he says, he went to work for Special Love. He does things like these camps. He has never done anything else. Nothing else except care for people. So he knows a lot of the campers, and knows that many of the children who recover and go on to build lives move into, in his words, “social work, and every imaginable occupation.”

Perhaps it is because, as this executive of Special Love observes, speaking of the young patients having dinner, Camp Fantastic “gives them their fight back.”

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