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Search The Fig Tree's stories of people who make a difference:

Camp for childhood cancer survivors engages them in typical activities 

By Kaye Hult

Kari Allen 

Childhood cancer survivors can participate in a typical week of camp activities—swimming, archery, a climbing wall, boating and more—and their families can rest assured that the camp is medically supervised with trained oncology staff on site every day.

In 2005, Kari Allen began volunteering at Camp Journey, an outdoor camp experience tailored expressly to needs of these children.  In 2009, she became director of this program, which has been held at Ross Point Camp and Conference Center in Post Falls, Idaho, since 2005. 

This year, it was held the first week of August.  The camp usually has 120 campers from Eastern Washington, North Idaho, and Western Montana.

Kari, who grew up in Spokane and went to camp as a child, completed a two-year program in recreation at Green River Community College in Auburn, Wash.  She spent much of her life involved with Camp Fire.

Directing Camp Journey allows her to use her love of camping to provide children with the opportunity not only to camp, but also to develop independence and confidence, learn new skills and make memories to last a lifetime.

“Meals are family-style,” she said. 

A couple of staff members sit with campers at each table and make sure help is there for those needing it.  They teach manners for family-style eating, such as how to pass the food platters and how to make conversation.

The theme for Camp Journey this year was “Medieval Times,” so campers had three outdoor cooking sessions, learning to cook pizza on a stick, to make a tepee fire and to use fire safely.

They also learned about the history of compasses, which were invented in medieval times.  They learned how to use one and then used it to find objects hidden around the camp.

Pediatric cancer children are surviving longer, Kari said.  Some suffer from cognitive delays and other physical issues.  They may look healthy, but they live with limits.

Camper experiences more than face painting.

The children have much in common because of having similar experiences, whether they are actively receiving cancer therapy, have completed it, or have received a bone marrow transplant or stem cell therapy.

The campers can bring one other person with them—a sibling or a buddy.  In addition, siblings who have lost a brother or sister to cancer in the past two years also come to the camp.

“The mix ends up being about 60 percent cancer survivors and 40 percent others,” she said.

The camp includes two sessions:  a four-day day camp for children aged five through seven and a week-long resident camp for those from seven to 17.

For 16-and-17-year-olds, there is a leader-in-training (LIT) program so they can return as counselors.

Camp Journey is free to campers and their families because of donations and because they use an all-volunteer staff, Kari explained.

The staff includes 75 to 80 volunteers, from ages 18 to 75. 

“We recruit from universities,” Kari said.  “The wisdom of older counselors blends with energy of younger ones.”

One young man who attended camp brought two buddies.  One was a quiet boy.  It was difficult to tell how much of the Camp Journey experience he was taking in.  This year, all three of them came back.  The quiet one has become an engineer, she said.

“We become a family,” Kari explained.  “If I hear that a child who had been at camp is having health issues, I’ll contact the volunteers.  They will send cards or get in touch to offer their support.  We work with families.”

Kari has learned that parents are so connected to that child that it’s hard to let them go to the camp.

“Having a cell phone is a bonus.  I tell the parents they can contact me. I’ll text them a picture so they can see how their child is settling in,” she said.

“Because of an illness, I have a scarred leg.  A camper noticed and wanted to know what kind of cancer I had. That scar had bothered me.  I felt humbled when I realized it was nothing compared to the experiences of these cancer survivors,” said Kari.

She herself became a cancer survivor a few years ago.

“The relationships I had with my cancer campers helped me not feel helpless.  They made my experience easier,” she said.

Camp Journey’s roots go back to 1985, when an all-volunteer camp for children diagnosed with cancer called Camp Betchacan was created.

They met in varying campgrounds over the years, including N-Sid-Sen, Lutherhaven and the YMCA camp.

Eventually, the American Cancer Society (ACS) took over the funding and programming.

The American Camp Association (ACA) brought the camp to the Ross Point Baptist Camp in 2005, the year Kari began volunteering there.

Abby Wadlow was the camp director then.  Her mother had been Kari’s counselor when she was a young camper.  That friendship led to Kari becoming a volunteer counselor when she returned to the Spokane area from near Cincinnati, Ohio.

When the camp moved to Ross Point, they decided to use volunteers again.  It allowed staff to focus on the specific needs of campers and to adapt the program to the clientele.

Kari filled in for Abby as director during one of her absences and then became director.

In 2014, the ACA decided to withdraw its funding from the camp.  Those involved locally did not want to see it close, so they recreated it as Camp Journey.

The camp continues to be ACA-accredited.  It also belongs to the Children’s Oncology Camping Association (COCA).

“Ross Point Camp works well,” she said.  The site is fairly level, and they have golf carts to take the more fragile campers around.

“Because the camp often rents their space, they know how to make it welcoming for us,” she said. 

For example, the cleaning crew helps keep the place as sterile as possible, including disinfecting doorknobs.

While many camps are in the middle of nowhere, Ross Point is in the middle of a development, just off the freeway.

“One day, when a session was beginning, a young boy from Seattle obviously was not well when he arrived.  His father was distraught. John Batchelder, the Ross Point director, suggested I call 911,” Kari said.

The ambulance, which came right away, turned off its siren so as not to disturb other campers, who were at supper. The ambulance took him to the hospital to stabilize him.

“Firemen who came suggested the other campers might want to explore the fire truck.  This allowed us to suggest that the truck was there as a special treat for the children,” said Kari.

She appreciates that Camp Journey is a non-denominational camp.  She thinks that her growing up Lutheran helped her to be a “God believer” open to accepting more than one way to believe.

When she married, she moved to Ohio, near her husband’s family.  Her children were born and mostly raised there.  Now she is glad to return to the Spokane area, where her children can come to know her family.

For information, call 509-863-7379 or email kari@rosspoint.org.



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