Camp Enchantment has been part of Matt Henderson’s life for more than 20 years.
The weeklong summer camp for children with cancer has been in New Mexico for 27 years, so the idea that it might no longer operate “was completely unexpected and something I almost didn’t think possible,” said Henderson, 29, a childhood cancer survivor and camper, and now a camp staff member.
Likewise, for 14-year-old cancer survivor Noah McCay, the notion that the camp might be discontinued “was almost unbelievable,” he said. “I couldn’t figure out why they would stop something that’s so good for these kids and something that should be part of the treatment.”
The American Cancer Society’s decision last year to cease funding its summer camp
programs affects about 45 camps nationwide, said Camp Enchantment executive director Helen Pino. In addition to the weeklong program for children and young people age 7-17 who were diagnosed with cancer, the Cancer Society also funded a four-day program for the siblings of children with cancer.
The cost was about $1,500 per camper for the week and about $500 for each sibling in the four-day program, Pino said.
Still, the New Mexico camp, which since 2005 has been based out of Manzano Mountain Retreat in Torreon, may
survive on its own, providing it can continue to raise funds locally – something it just accomplished for the first time, said Pino.
The reason the American Cancer Society withdrew its financial support, explained Brittany Conklin, the society’s New Mexico spokeswoman, was to “refocus its priorities” into research and programs that make the biggest impact on saving lives from cancer, while avoiding duplication of services offered by other organizations.
Nationwide, the American Cancer Society is supporting 55 active, multi-year research grants for pediatric cancer, totaling $27.8 million, she said.
The importance of research and other life-saving programs is not in dispute, said Pino. Still, the camp “needs to continue because it’s part of the healing process for our children,” she said. “It’s not just about the medicines they put in their bodies and the surgeries they go through, it’s also about the emotional healing and the feeling of acceptance that these children experience at camps.”
Some of the kids have had major surgeries and physical scarring, making them feel uncomfortable in a school setting, where other kids can’t relate to what they’ve been through, Pino said. For those kids with cancer who have been out of school for years because of their illness, “they’ve been deprived of the socialization that’s so important for their growth, and the camp provides them an opportunity to foster those relationships and be around kids who do understand.”
With the help of an independent board of directors, volunteers raised enough money to have a camping session for 60 kids in May, said Pino.
They had about a year to prepare, and camp volunteers raised nearly $70,000 from fundraisers, donations from friends and families of camp staffers, small business and corporate donors, designated contributions to sponsor individual campers, grants from civic organizations and in-kind contributions of goods and services.
But there were compromises. Fifteen kids had to be turned away, the camp was shortened by one day, some activities and entertainment provided by outside groups in the past had to be replaced by in-house activities and entertainment, and the entire staff, including the on-site medical team, volunteered their time.
Camp Enchantment is also working with the UNM Foundation, which helps in the fundraising efforts, Pino said.
This is good news for McCay, of Farmington, who is going into his sophomore year of high school. Diagnosed with an aggressive form of blood cancer when he was 10, he received different chemotherapies for three years, but attended Camp Enchantment every year since being diagnosed.
“I had spent a lot of time in hospitals, so I thought it was really cool to get away for a week and be outdoors,” he said. “Sometimes we’d talk about cancer and ask each other, ‘what did you have, what kind of treatment did you get, how long were you in the hospital?’ But for the most part we didn’t talk about it. There was no need to. We were just there to have fun.”
And there was no shortage of activities, which included archery, rock climbing, fishing, kayaking, swimming, arts and crafts, cooking and a ropes course with a zipline.
“Camp is, and should be, part of the treatment,” McCay said.
Henderson, now an analyst with the U.S. Department of Justice in Albuquerque, was also diagnosed with a type of blood cancer at age 7 and remained in treatment until age 10. He attended camp all those years and beyond, eventually becoming a counselor, advisory board member and marketing and communications director.
Henderson says he fully understands the American Cancer Society’s position with regard to funding. Still, he said, “there has to be a balance between curing cancer and healing from cancer; camp doesn’t cure cancer but it does help heal, and that’s important from an emotional and psychological point of view.”
It was his personal experience that “camp gave me a chance to see other kids and young adults who had been through the same thing I had been through,” he said. “It was important enough to me as a kid that nothing, not school trips, family trips or organized sports, was allowed to conflict with camp.”