‘I have freedom’: Ontario summer camp for children with cancer changing lives
As summer winds down, children are heading home from camps across the country.
If you have ever been to camp, you probably still hold on to some of the memories of swimming, hiking, and spending time outdoors with friends. But for a group of children in southern Ontario, attending Camp Quality is about more than all of that.
“I have freedom not having to be at doctor’s appointments, sitting on a hospital bed, having to get IVs all the time,” said Jamie Lee Kellar.
The 13-year-old has spent the last few summers at Camp Quality. When she isn’t here, she is often in hospital.
“At 18 months I was diagnosed with NF1 which is Neurofibromatosis, it’s tumours of the nervous system,” she explained.
“And at four years that’s when they found out that I had a brain tumour.”
Now legally blind in one eye with a tumour pressing on her optic nerve, you would not know Jamie Lee is sick. She sits with friends, and her camp companion, laughing, snacking on carrots and dip, and colouring.
Camp Quality Canada is a a national charitable organization devoted to providing free camp experiences and year-round programming for children with cancer and serious illness. It operates six overnight camps in Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario for children ages seven to 17 affected by cancer and serious illness.
At the Southern Ontario location, there are 65 campers this year with more than 70 volunteers. Each camper is paired with a companion. They eat together, play together and sleep in the same room together. But the bond runs deep because of what they have in common.
“Since I was sick before and I’m a companion now I can always say, ‘I have the same scars,’ you can always compare things like that and little happy stories you can share similar poke marks in your arms and stuff like that,” explained Ana Schmidt.
“People just understand what you’ve been through and you’re allowed to be a kid.”
Camps generally have a nurse on staff, but Camp Quality has a pediatric hematologist and/or oncologist.
“We provide all the medical support that’s necessary at camp, but our goal is to be a very tiny part of their camp experience to be able to give their parents the peace of mind that they’re going to get the medications that they need that they’re going to get them on time and that we’re here in the background should they have any problems or concerns,” said Dr. Breakey.
The mission of Camp Quality Canada is to improve the quality of life for children living with cancer through camps and year-round family support programs.
“It’s a place where people who are having a really hard time at the hospital … people with disabilities or who have cancer or who have had cancer before, like me, they finally get a chance, and I mean finally to get out of the hospital,” said Krystal Walker.
This is the Leukemia survivor’s first time at camp and she plans to return next year.
Mo Hejazi calls himself the “director of fun.” When he isn’t planning pranks, he is paying for them. In the lunchroom, he got a pie to the face along with some of the other volunteers.
“Their lives have been unbelievably unfair … they deserve extra joy,” said Hejazi, who spends months planning for this week of camp.
“That’s why it’s nice that the volunteers are so dedicated to it and they go through the extra effort to make sure that this week is as special as possible.”
Hejazi and Laura Calvert, the director of Camp Quality Southern Ontario, have become good friends. When Calvert is not at camp, she works as a research coordinator at McMaster Children’s Hospital.
“Seeing these kids be able to have fun in a safe environment, not having to worry about what they deal with when they’re at home, it’s just the most special place on earth to me,” said Calvert.
“The fact of the matter is sometimes these kids are bullied at school because they don’t look like the other kids in their grade and it’s absolutely gut wrenching to hear that they go through that, but it’s also incredible to think that they have this network of people who would never judge them.”
Calvert and Hejazi said the cancer hardly factors into camp at all.
“We’re a big family and they don’t have to worry about the little social pieces that they might be dealing with out of camp,” said Calvert.
“The only time you realize that the kids have cancer is when you get to the pool and you see scars. A lot of them have very similar scars… and then you realize where you are but from the minute they get here to the minute they leave it’s about fun,” said Hejazi.
Camp Quality Canada is part of an international family of organizations originally founded in Australia in 1983 with the goal of providing a program to support children with cancer and their families, an area not being addressed by any other organization at the time.
In 1988, Camp Quality was brought to Canada by a group of volunteers in Southern Ontario. Since then, it has expanded to seven camp locations across Canada.
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