As an aspiring engineer, Dave Uth was ready to accept his first job offer, but with one condition: He needed a week off in the summer to attend camp.
The prospective employer declined his request and Uth turned down the job in 2014. “I’m sorry. I’m going to keep looking,” Uth said. He eventually landed a job that accommodated his request.
Uth has volunteered as a counselor at Camp No Worries in South Jersey every summer since 1998 and was not going to miss the special one-week retreat in the Pine Barrens for local youngsters with cancer and their siblings. He began going as a camper when he was 10 years old and this year returned as the camp’s leader and counselor in training.
“It started off as a way to give back,” said Uth, 28, of Seattle, a systems engineer who designs aircraft at Boeing. “It turned into something that was fantastic. It’s just a special place.”
Camp No Worries was started in 1995 by a former child cancer patient who wanted to create a comfortable and relaxing place for children who have gone through cancer treatment or are currently undergoing treatment and their siblings whose lives also have been touched by cancer.
Today, it is a special place not only for cancer patients, but former campers like Uth who return faithfully as volunteers to give a new generation of siblings the same experience that they had as youngsters during a difficult time in their lives.
“It’s so hard to forget,” said Nicole Fahs, who came to the camp when she was six years old. Her brother, Brett, was 10 when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. “Whenever I think of my time in the Pine Barrens, I think about here.”
With a busy schedule of daily fun activities such as swimming and arts and crafts, the weeklong camp provides cancer patients a much-needed respite from medical routines and puts them back on equal terms with their healthy siblings. It also gives the siblings, often confused by what his happening, a better understanding about the potentially life-threatening diagnosis their sibling may be facing.
“We provide hope, resilience, and friendship,” said Kasey Massa, the camp’s founder and executive director. “We really want it to be a week of no worries for the entire family.”
Uth went to the camp with his younger brother Erik, who was eight years old when he was diagnosed with acute leukemia in 1997. Several years later when she was old enough, their younger sister, Amelia, joined them in the annual outing, which is provided free of cost to families. The siblings grew up in Medford.
This year, Erik, 26, and cancer free, returned to camp for the first time as a counselor following a six-year absence. Like many former campers, Dave has been a regular camp volunteer – for nine straight years, flying in from around the country.
“I’m not missing another year,” vowed Erik, a Bordentown Township public works employee. “This was such a big part of my life for many years. It was a place where I could feel like a normal kid.”
Located at Camp Inawendiwin in Tabernacle in Burlington County, the camp this year enrolled nearly 100 youngster, ages 6-to-16. Many were referred to the camp by area hospitals and cancer foundations. The campers traveled from across the region to attend the camp, which began June 25 and ended Saturday.
“It’s been really fun,” said Keira Oliver, 8, of Mount Laurel, a first-time camper. “You get to meet new friends.”
Brooke Conklin, 12, of Medford, signed up for camp, along with a friend, Paige. Some of the campers were already friends because they undergo cancer treatment at the same clinic.
“Everybody is the same here. If you’re bald you don’t have to worry about anyone making fun of you,” said Brooke.
There is no special time set aside for campers or their siblings to talk about their illness. Instead, the youngsters simply bring it up when they want to talk about it. Counselors are always close by to offer encouragement, a hug, or an ice pop. In a poignant exchange with a counselor this week, a girl whose sister had cancer shared, “I’m just grateful my sister didn’t die.”
“When you’re a child you don’t necessarily process what is going on around you,” recalled Fahs, 22, a registered nurse who grew up in Southampton and has been a camp counselor for three years. Her brother survived his bout with cancer and has volunteered over the years, too. “It’s scary when you’re in the hospital all the time with your sibling.”
The campers stay overnight and spend their days playing outdoors, singing, and bonding with other youngsters dealing with similar diagnoses. The camp has an infirmary and is staffed by about 70 volunteers including nurses who can administer medication if needed and monitor the medical needs of the children, social workers, and cabin counselors.
On a sunny afternoon last week, the campers enjoyed a special treat. Huge inflatable “bounce houses” were erected in the sandy parking lot and for several hours they could jump and play. A station was set up with an endless supply of water ice and they took turns trying to hit the mark on a dunking machine to drop a counselor into the tank.
“I really like this place,” said Claire Koreck, 8, of Sicklerville, sitting at a picnic table under a shade tree during a break. ” I have lots of memories here.”
This was the third year at the camp for Claire, who has Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare cancer that affects the bones or soft tissue. She was joined by her twin brother, Declin and two other siblings, Maeve, 11, and Sarah, 6.
The camp is sponsored by the YMCA of Burlington and Camden Counties, which underwrites the $1,000 cost for each child to stay for seven days and six nights. The funds are raised from private donations, foundations and fund-raisers.
Massa, 42, of Moorestown, founded the program as a 19-year-old while attending West Virginia University. She was diagnosed with a brain tumor at age 11 and wanted to start a program where young cancer patients and their siblings could have fun and not simply be told what they could not do, as she was while getting treatment.
“This is a week about the ‘can-dos,” said Massa, a mother of two and a social worker at Cooper University Hospital in Camden, where she was treated as a youngster. “We meet the children where they are. This is a happy place.”
The camp began in 1995 at Camp Ockanickon in Medford with 14 campers and has grown every year. It was moved to Camp Inawendiwin in 2001.
Earlier in the week, the camp had a memorial service for campers who lost their battle. This year, they acknowledged a girl who attended camp last year and died about two weeks ago. About 30 campers have died since the program began, Massa said. A survivor’s lunch celebrates the victorious battles against cancer.
“It makes you understand how grateful you are for the people around you,” said Fahs, of Philadelphia.
For more information contact:
YMCA of Burlington and Camden Counties
59 Centerton Road
Mount Laurel, NJ 08054
856-231-9622, ext 232 or firstname.lastname@example.org