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Bringing joy to life for pediatric cancer survivors

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Written by Chris Curry

When a child receives a diagnosis of cancer, asthma, heart condition, or arthritis, their days of carefree fun in the sun during summer vacation may be fewer than the number of days they spend at the Children’s Hospital of Georgia. From infusion therapies, multiple tests, and numerous doctor visits, this transition can be difficult for any child to navigate. Therefore, the members of the Child and Adolescent Life Services team works so hard to prepare amazing camp experiences like Camp Rainbow.

“Camp Rainbow is an overnight, week-long camp for pediatric cancer survivors,” said Kym Allen, director of Camp Rainbow at the Children’s Hospital. “Each child is able to bring one sibling with them for an amazing experience at Camp Lakeside in Lincoln County. Camp is a wonderful opportunity for these children to forget about their diagnosis and to focus on just being a kid enjoying kayaking, fishing, a magic show, a carnival and more amazing experiences me, my team, and our friends working for The Family Y prepare for them.”

Thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Camp Rainbow, which started back in 1985, looked a little different this year. Usually, Allen and her Child Life team bring around 100 children to camp. This year, social distancing and other safety protocols limited the number of campers to around 35. The campers are separated by age and developmental stage into three groups each of boys and girls. Each group is led by camp counselors receiving training and strategies from Allen and her team to make sure every camper stays safe, healthy, and happy during their camp experience.

“We offer on-site medical care at the Medical Shed located on the Camp Lakeside property,” Allen said. “So, we see children leave the climbing wall activity, swing by the ‘Med Shed’ to get their chemotherapy treatment for the day, and then head down a trail to the archery range.”

 

While pediatric cancer survivors are eligible to attend camp beginning at the age of four, some who are diagnosed, for the first time, as a teenager are also eligible to take part in the fun. For 15-year-old Trent Shealey, 2022 was his first time coming to Camp Rainbow after being diagnosed with leukemia in October 2018. His treatment and care did not allow Shealey to take part in 2019. And, with the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and safety protocols and guidelines in 2021, this is his first time getting the full camp experience.

“It has been awesome being part of Camp Rainbow this year,” Shealey said. “I have made a lot of new friends here and we have had a lot of fun together.”

Shealey admits he feels like a normal teenager at camp, which Allen said is the goal of Camp Rainbow. For Shealey and other survivors, camp is an opportunity to discuss their diagnosis, their treatments, and their overall experiences with their cancer with children who understand their emotions, their thoughts, and the impact of their care.

“Everyone here has the same sort of similar experiences,” Shealey said. “It has really allowed me to share my extroverted side because I can be more open with people. Since 2018, I have been sort of isolated from most people. So, this is the first kind of time I can really talk to people.”

For Shealey, his favorite camp activity was archery. He said taking part in the High Ropes Confidence Courses at Pointes West Army Resort just across Clarks Hill Lake from Camp Lakeside was the toughest thing he had ever done. The course has a series of obstacles teams of four campers must complete including walking from one lily pad to the next, touching a swinging pole, and walking along a tightrope high above the ground. Instructors line the course ready to help campers complete each obstacle when challenges arise.

To cap off the week, Allen and her team turned the multi-purpose building into a tropical paradise for a dance where the boys and girls were able to dress up and hang out with new friends, counselors, and a deejay for an evening of dancing and fun.

“I have never danced with anyone,” Shealey said. “But, just to have this opportunity makes me excited and happy to be here with my fellow campers. I cannot wait to come back next year and experience Camp Rainbow in 2023. If anyone else is thinking about going, I would encourage them to come and be part of the week because they will have a lot of fun.”

If you are interested in learning more about Camp Rainbow, Allen is happy to schedule a time to meet with parents and their camp candidate to discuss how they can get registered for camp before all the slots fill up. And she is always looking for counselors looking to volunteer their time during Camp Rainbow to help provide a safe, inclusive, and exciting atmosphere for all the campers.

For more information on how to sponsor a camper or support one of our many camps for children with health challenges, please see page 10 of our 2022 Children’s Hospital Giving Guide.

About the author

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Chris Curry

Chris Curry is the Communications Coordinator for the Georgia Cancer Center at Augusta University. Contact him to schedule an interview on this topic or with one of our experts at 706-799-8841 or chrcurry@augusta.edu.