“When your kid gets sick, you get laser-focused on getting them better,” said Zac Johnson, the Executive Director of The Goodtimes Project, a nonprofit that, through a youth summer camp and other programming, helps “local families to connect and kids to be kids.”
For the family of a child diagnosed with cancer, life changes overnight. Seemingly less important needs like date nights or outdoor playtime can get lost in the chaos of treatments and doctor’s visits.
“A lot of the joys in life tend to go out the window,” Johnson said.
The Goodtimes Project aims to restore some of those joys to the lives of both the children they work with and their parents.
“We really want to be a powerful force in their world,” Johnson said.
The Goodtimes Project launched in 2013 in an effort to continue Camp Goodtimes, a summer camp that for 30 years operated under the umbrella of the American Cancer Society.
However, when the American Cancer Society needed to redirect more of its funding toward cancer research, Camp Goodtimes lost its monetary support.
In response to that loss of funding, a group of camp counselors and volunteers banded together and formed The Goodtimes Project. Initially, those volunteers simply intended to start a nonprofit that would raise funds to save the camp. But in just the first few years of its existence, the organization has grown into something much more far-reaching.
The youth camp, which occurs in two sessions each summer on Vashon Island, is for kids ages 7 to 17 and serves cancer patients and their siblings, including those who have lost a sibling to cancer. Every summer, the camp serves about 250 kids.
Despite the fact that many of its guests are in the middle of cancer treatments, Camp Goodtimes looks a lot like any other ordinary summer camp.
Johnson said he was surprised by how “normal” everything is. “I guess I expected there to be a lot more handholding,” he said.
With just a few small tweaks, campers can participate in activities like archery, obstacle courses, fishing, and even whale watching on an Argosy Cruises tour around the Puget Sound (Argosy is a big sponsor of The Goodtimes Project).
“This is a place where they can just be kids again,” Johnson said.
The Goodtimes Project also runs a camp for young adult cancer survivors ages 18 to 25. Called the Kayak Adventure Camp, it runs for one week every summer in the San Juan Islands.
Both camps are free of charge to every attendee.
“Their diagnosis or whatever they’ve been through previous to this, there’s no obstacles for them when they come to camp,” Johnson said.
Through fundraising and sponsorships, The Goodtimes Project is able to cover the approximately $1,800 needed for each guest (a cost that’s a little higher than a typical summer camp, due to the special circumstances of the campers and the fully trained medical staff on site).
The Goodtimes Project accepts donations online at www.thegoodtimesproject.org, and according to Johnson, a sizable portion of the nonprofit’s support comes from the Woodinville area. One major influx of funds comes from a wine auction put on every April.
Volunteers are also needed for camp positions and other jobs. Each Camp Goodtimes summer session requires about 80 adult staff members to achieve a camper to staff ratio of 5-to-1.
“We have just as great a need for volunteers as we do for donations,” Johnson said.
Aside from the summer camps, Johnson said The Goodtimes Project is also working to bring their fun, youthful camp atmosphere to cancer patients year-round. They have a presence at Seattle Children’s Hospital and at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital in Tacoma and even work with a handful of kids from Alaska.
Johnson is new to the organization and to the Pacific Northwest. Originally from Chicago and with a background in work at children’s hospitals, he joined The Goodtimes Project about 10 months ago.
“The real draw to The Goodtimes Project was that I kind of missed getting to know the kids that I was helping,” Johnson said. “I missed seeing the benefits.”
The benefits of camp are extensive. According to an article published by the American Camp Association, a program like Camp Goodtimes can reduce patients’ disease-related anxiety, improve patients’ self-perception, and provide patients with healthy coping mechanisms.
“The kids, they will often say things like, ‘This was better than Christmas,” Johnson said. And the parents? They have a similar reaction: “We needed this more than we realized.”