JULY 21, 1997
photo courtesy of the American Cancer Society
Lara Bennett, Camp Good Times counselor, June 1997.
Camp Goodtimes: where children can be themselves
by Deborah Stone
According to the American Cancer Society, cancer is the chief cause of death by disease in children between the ages of 1 and14. There are many types of childhood cancer, but the most prevalent is leukemia. It will affect 2,600 U.S. children by the end of this year.
When children face cancer, a part of their childhood is stolen from them. It is important for them not to feel "different" from other children and to provide them with as many normal experiences as possible to keep their childhood intact.
In 1984, the American Cancer Society's Camp Goodtimes was created to enable children with cancer and their siblings to have a regular summer camp experience. Each summer, for one week in June, over 250 participants, ages 7-17, come from all areas of Washington to one of two sites: in Eastern Washington on Fan Lake near Spokane and in Western Washington on Vashon Island.
Camp Goodtimes ensures that these children have the opportunity to attend a medically supervised summer camp, allowing them to participate in all the usual camp activities. The staff includes a pediatric oncologist and several nurses, as well as many medical and lay volunteers, some of whom are childhood cancer survivors themselves. The American Cancer Society does not charge campers or family members, and all funding for the camp is provided through donations to the Society.
The Camp strives to be a place where these children are treated as normal, not "sick," campers. It is a place where they can escape from the pressures of cancer and be allowed to have their own fun at their own pace. Kids come to laugh, learn new activities and make lasting friendships. No one patronizes or judges them, nor are they reminded of their hair loss or other effects of treatment.
Thirteen-year-old Colt Maxwell of Redmond, who has Ewings Sarcoma, a form of bone cancer, returned to Camp Goodtimes for his second time.
"It's lots of fun and all the activities, like boating, arts and crafts, biking, the carnival, the dance, etcetera are great!" he said. "You stay in cabins with ten kids and two counselors. You get to be with people who know what you've been through. I've made good friends there and keep in touch with them during the year through letters and by the phone."
The first year Colt went, he took his sister Jena, and this year his sister Shawna accompanied him. According to their mother, Patti Maxwell, Shawna was reluctant to go at first, but had a great time and plans to be a counselor-in-training next summer.
"This camp is wonderful! It pulls kids together and helps them bond. It's been such a positive experience for Colt and his sisters," Patti says.
Nicole Paxson, 14, of Woodinville, went to camp with her brother Jeffrey, 12. At age six, Jeffrey was diagnosed with a tumor inside his spinal cord. Fortunately, the tumor was benign and was removed through major surgery. The two siblings have enjoyed Camp Goodtimes, according to their father John Paxson.
"It's one of the most wonderful places for kids," he says. "Everything is geared toward making their week the best." Nicole adds, "I was scared for my brother when he had the tumor, but it made me learn more about cancer and understand the different types. Camp Goodtimes has helped, too. You can get close to people, and I've made lots of friends. Nobody puts anybody down there." Her favorite activity is the cruise to the Seattle waterfront and Tillicum Village.
Lara Bennet, 24, who grew up in Woodinville, was diagnosed with leukemia at age eight. She has been cancer-free for twelve years now, yet clearly remembers as a child being scared of hospitals and the nausea from the chemotherapy treatments. She attended Camp Goodtimes for three years and was in the counselor-in-training program for one year. She has just completed her sixth year as a counselor and says, "I have such fond memories of camp as a kid. I always had such a blast. It's such a normal setting and makes you forget what you're going through."
As a counselor, Lara enjoys getting to know the different personalities of the children in her cabin. "It's so rewarding to be with the kids," she says. "I feel I can give back some of what I got as a camper and also that I am able to relate to what many of these kids are going through or have gone through."
Lara will continue to be a counselor in the summers to come because she sees it as a priority in her life and also because of the joy it brings her. She is in her last year at Central Washington University, completing a degree in Elementary and Special Education.
For more information regarding Camp Goodtimes, call the American Cancer Society at: 1-800-ACS-2345.