Young patients, siblings connect at Dr. Seuss-themed Camp Kemo

sellis@thestate.comJune 13, 2014 

Imagine a week at a camp where courage abounds,

Laughter and whimsy are the only sounds.

Meeting old and new friends that are truer than true,

And while sharing your fight with cancer, becoming you-er than you.

Although fun, the rhymes hardly capture the exuberance on the last day of activity at Camp Kemo, a weeklong annual experience led by Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital for children with cancer and blood disorders and their siblings.

This year’s camp was Dr. Seuss-themed, and Friday’s events were colorful and joyful.

Donning white T-shirts and blue plastic sunglasses, more than 100 children rushed the campground field and quickly engulfed themselves in a cloud of powdered paint, creating a scene that could rival the pages of any Seuss storybook.

Camp Kemo is designed to offer the kids, ranging from 5 to 18 years old, a normal, playful camp experience in the midst of dealing with challenging illnesses, said camp director Cassandra Shea. It’s a place “to create happy memories that sort of shine over and outshine the negative memories of this time in their life,” she said.

Shea can connect with the kids better than many adults – she’s beaten cancer twice herself.

“There aren’t always a ton of people around that can sit with them and say, ‘I get it.’ I know this is awful. I know that it’s terrible to feel so sick all the time and to not want to eat and to lose your hair,” Shea said. “I like to be able to provide at least just that sense of ‘we’re not alone’ to them.”

Many campers return year after year – they’re eligible for up to five years after they’ve completed their treatment. And even after their time runs out as campers, many return as counselors.

Hillary Johnson has been a counselor for eight years. She also spent three years as a camper after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer at age 13. After coming to Camp Kemo, she said, it’s hard not to keep coming back.

“It’s rewarding,” Johnson said. “I always say I don’t regret what happened to me because I got to meet so many people who are still close friends.

“Just seeing how much fun (the kids) have just reminds me of how much fun I had, so that’s why I continue to come.”

Inspirational Seuss quotes dotted the campground this year, but it’s the stories of past and present campers’ courage that inspire the campers and counselors.

Abi Cruz’s challenge began when she was working on a biology project two years ago. She had been trying to break apart a piece of foam board but, instead, broke her arm. On May 25, 2012, she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a kind of bone cancer. And on Feb. 17, 2013, she completed treatment. Now 16, Abi’s been healthy ever since.

If cancer taught her anything, she said, it’s “keeping those close to you closer.”

Before Abi’s illness, her relationship with her 13-year-old sister, Olivia, was nothing like it is now, they said.

“Just little things. Like, (before) I wouldn't want to be anywhere near her, and now I follow her around a lot,” Olivia said. “Some siblings, they just don’t interact at all. ...But now Abi and I, it’s like, ‘Hey, that’s my sister – I’m going to go give her a hug just because I can.’”

Abi and Olivia attended Camp Kemo for the first time last year. Back again this year, they said the camp has been a place for them to connect with people whose stories are like their own.

“There’s really no need to be hesitant at all when you’re here,” Abi said. “It’s just a really good time because you feel like you’re just the same as everyone else.”

Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.

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