Katarina Huggins embraced life with a different perspective as she mingled with other campers at Camp Kemo this past week.
When the Gaston teenager stepped onto the camp grounds a year ago, her bald head provided an all-too-visible reminder of her ongoing cancer treatments.
The treatments have ended and her hair has grown in, but the 15-year-olds new outlook isnt solely about her own story.
This is a place where you can go and people accept you, Huggins said. They have been through the same thing as you have.
Katarina is one of nearly 120 participants at Camp Kemo. The camp offers a week of fun activities for cancer patients at Palmetto Health Childrens Hospital and their siblings. It wraps up its 33rd year today at Camp Kinard near Batesburg-Leesville.
For the second year, Katarina took her place among the scavenger hunts, Iron Chef competition, red carpet dance, hayrides, carnival night and other activities. And she did so, she said, with a little more confidence.
I wasnt really as social (last year) as I am this year, said the rising Airport High School sophomore.
Katarina learned that she had Ewings sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, in December 2010. She completed her treatments at Childrens Hospital this past December and said she found herself an encourager to first-time campers during the week.
I tell them how I dealt with it, she said. They just tell me thank you.
Camp Kemo was one of the nations first pediatric oncology camps. The camp places hospital staff members who are familiar to campers alongside volunteers for the week-long overnight experience.
Jeanne Schmidt, the camps director the past 13 years, said the camps major strength rests in the shared experiences and mutual understanding among the campers and staff.
Once they get here, its an opportunity for them to spend time with other kids with similar experiences, Schmidt said. When they come here, they can say hey, Im not by myself.
Campers can return up to five years after they have finished their treatments, and many often come back as counselors.
Angelica Goodson, who recently moved to North Carolina from Hopkins, has been undergoing cancer treatment several years and marked her fifth year at camp this year. The 17-year-old, who plans to return as a counselor one day, said her experiences have taught her valuable lessons that shes tried to pass on.
You dont feel like the only bald person in the world, she said. You go out and live.
Camp Kemo is funded through private donations and community support and is free to the families of campers. Donations may be made at PalmettoHealthFoundation.org or by calling (803) 434-7275.