Chris Satullo: Retreat brings joy for ailing children

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Ronald McDonald Camp for kids with cancer and their siblings in the Poconos.

Yesterday was another leisurely morning at Ronald McDonald Camp up in the Poconos.

 

A hungry, "alien" caterpillar ate several campers. An 8-year-old "Michael Phelps" won a rousing Olympic 10-meter dash. A devil with horns that looked suspiciously like red-felt reindeer antlers lost a fiddling contest to a pint-size Charlie Daniels. Then Ronald McDonald juggled while riding backwards on a unicycle, and 37 Harley-Davidsons roared up the stony trail to Camp Timber Tops, bearing $27,000 in donations.

 

That was pretty much it.

 

After burgers and dogs for lunch, things did heat up a little. It was time for the Mardi Gras carnival.

 

Ronald McDonald Camp is a one-week sleep-away camp for children with cancer and their siblings. The patients attend free; their brothers and sisters (who suffer the illness in their own ways) can come for only $100.

 

Philadelphia's Ronald McDonald House sponsors the camp in Greeley, Pa. Every year, volunteers raise the $250,000 needed to put on the jam-packed week of canoeing, rope-climbing, bow-bending, bead-stringing and face-painting.

 

The goal is to help the campers - who know way too much about needles, IVs and MRIs - feel like just any other giggling, elbow-scraping kids. But the camp is anything but ordinary. One cabin, the Med Shack, handles not only bug bites and ankle sprains, but oral chemotherapy as well. It's staffed by an 18-member team from Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, including my wife, a hospital social worker.

 

This camp has quite the camper-to-counselor ratio - 95 adults to 175 kids. That's what it takes to supervise and cheer on these kids during the dawn-to-dusk schedule. Nervous parents checking the slide shows posted nightly on the camp Web site often see shots of their child doing rambunctious things they no longer thought possible.

 

The counselors volunteer, using a week's vacation to bunk in a rustic cabin, trying to settle down a dozen 10-year-olds who won't go to sleep. The adults adore it, though the Med Shack does a brisk business in Motrin. One counselor listed his malady simply as "sore, sore, sore."

 

Steve Lapsley, a camp co-director, has been coming for 15 years. By week's end, he's well-cooked, "but it's such a good exhaustion." The hardest part, he said as his Mardi Gras beads glistened in the sun, is returning to work in Maryland the following Monday: "I think, 'What am I doing here? I want to be back at camp.' "

 

Co-director Mimi Myers says of the volunteers, "You have never seen more dedicated, from-the-heart people."

 

And you've never seen kids look happier. Each week begins with some tears and fears, a few homesick pleas to leave. By midweek, though, every camper seems in the same grinning flow. Myers and Lapsley say they often can't tell which campers are patients, which are siblings (the breakdown is 65-35). Here and there you see haunting images - a cane, some crutches, a bald head - but the mood remains one of happy bustle.

 

Yesterday morning's centerpiece was a talent show, with bunks putting on skits featuring that ravenous caterpillar, fiddling devil and Olympics spoof. At one point, the raucous Timber Theater turned as silent as the tall pines around the little stage. Madeline Ritter, who looks barely half her 10 years, sang some lyrics she'd written:

 

When I was 2, I always looked bruised.

 

My eyes were dark, my mom was confused.

 

My fever was high, my platelets were low,

 

Why was something we did not know.

 

Madeline and her twin sister, Hannah, who live in Manheim, Pa., were diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, a pre-leukemic condition. They got stem-cell transplants at Children's Hospital.

 

A generous person gave stem cells to me

 

And now I'm healthy and cancer-free.

 

I survived through the pain and it turned out all right

 

I survived through the pain and I can sleep through the night.

 

The amphitheater burst into applause. I felt a poke in the back.

 

It was Lapsley. "That," he said, "is why we do this."

 


To comment, e-mail csatullo@phillynews.com.

 

For more information on the camp, go to www.ronaldmcdonaldcamp.com.