At Camp Sunshine, they are linked by cancer but bonded by good times

August 22, 1991|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,Sun Staff Correspondent

PORT DEPOSIT -- During this week of fun among the gentle hills of the Susquehanna Valley, three girls with cancer talked unflinchingly of the experiences that can turn life at home into a trial.

Under a powder-blue sky, two of the girls nodded in recognition as Areen Armenian, a 13-year-old girl whose thinning hair is a hallmark of chemotherapy, told how she was walking to the school bus one day when someone called her "baldy."

She used to wear a wig but grew tired of the people who would ask why she wore it and of the curious stares she would draw any time she took it off to swim. One time, in fifth grade, "Kids were making fun of me, and I got so mad that I just tore off my wig in front of the whole school."

Here, at Camp Sunrise, no one stares, no one teases and no one tiptoes around sensitive subjects. It's a camp exclusively for children with cancer, and to hear the campers tell it, all they get is support and the kind of laughter that's born of fun rather than cruelty.

"Here," Areen said, "you don't have to worry."

Camp Sunrise, sponsored by the American Cancer Society, had humble beginnings five years ago when about a half-dozen kids came to the weeklong affair. Since then, it has burgeoned to the point where it now attracts 80 children between age 6 and 18 -- and about half that many adults who work and play as counselors and medical personnel.

But the basic premise has remained unchanged. It charges no fees, relying totally on contributions, and affords children a week of swimming, sports, cookouts and crafts mixed with an attention to their medical needs that a regular camp couldn't possibly provide.

The camp has attracted an assortment of volunteers ranging from the painting contractor, policeman and college student who have little or no contact with cancer patients in their "regular lives," according to Dr. Joe Wiley, the pediatric oncologist from Johns Hopkins Hospital who supervises the camp's medical services.

"We have the best medical staff I've dealt with anywhere," said Dr. Wiley, who is supported by two nurses and two physician assistants. Every day, they dispense 150 doses of bagged and labeled medications to 40 children who queue up at the camp infirmary, which is affectionately dubbed the "Funny Farm."

Some kids get routine treatment, such as antibiotics or chemotherapy injections. Sometimes, there's an extraordinary case, likea little girl with leukemia who needed a spinal tap the other day. "A half-hour later, she was back at full speed," Dr. Wiley said. "She did arts and crafts, then aerobics."

And there's Todd Loomis, a 27-year-old computer scientist from Baltimore who is in remission from Hodgkin's disease. Working as a counselor at Camp Sunrise is not just an act of giving, he said. It also offers him many of the same benefits that the children derive as campers.

"This gives everybody a forum -- everything from comparing scars, to talking about treatment," said Mr. Loomis, a counselor for older teen-age boys who sports a stubbled beard and a blue bandanna. "Usually we're up to 2:30 at night. You can't talk about these things with your friends in school."

Many of the campers bear the rosy cheeks and robust physiques of good health. And indeed, Dr. Wiley estimates that about a quarter are cured, having lived several cancer-free years since their treatment.

But the ravages of cancer are seen in the thinning hair, skinny bodies and pale complexions of many other children. Two boys walk on crutches because they each lost a leg to bone cancer. A little girl, rail-thin and bald, is simply too weak to walk and must use a wheelchair. Counselors also give her piggyback rides and escort her in a golf cart for longer excursions.

This week, campers observed a tradition: planting a small evergreen tree to remember campers from past years who have died. It may seem a sad intrusion for a camp that could make "Accentuate the Positive" its motto, but Dr. Wiley said it serves a spiritual need for these children who have grown up so fast.

"For some of the kids, this will be their last year. And a lot are afraid they're not going to be remembered."

Although the children are bound by their experiences with cancer, they also share the simple -- and complex -- fact that they are kids with childhood thoughts and interests. Many act surprised when asked about their lives as cancer patients.

"What do you talk about when the lights are out?" a visitor wanted to know.

"Boys," Areen Armenian said in an instant.

"Boys," said Myecha Ricks, a 14-year-old from Baltimore who has been in remission from leukemia for seven years.

In a shady dell, the older boys were engaged in a series of "trust exercises." One boy prepared to fall backward on the interlocked hands of about a dozen campers who waited in two parallel columns.

"United we stand, divided we fall," the boy cried out. "And if you don't stand, I fall." His back stiffened, and he fell, straight and smooth as felled timber. A chorus of cheers rang out as he landed on a bed of palms.

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