Who doesn’t relish the simple joys of summer camp: sleeping under the stars, canoeing, campfires and lifelong friends.
But when you’ve been diagnosed with cancer—which means multiple surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy—those simple joys are elusive.
That’s why Dr. Edward Baum, pediatric oncologist at Children’s Memorial Hospital, founded Children’s Oncology Service, Inc. and the One Step at a Time Summer Camp in 1978. His goal was to give children and adolescents a diversion from their illness, and also opportunities for success, control and hope for the future. One Step reminds these kids that they are not alone, and having this commonality helps to normalize their experiences.
“When you are surrounded by other kids who understand exactly what you’re feeling, it frees you to move beyond the burden and just have fun,” says Hailey Danisewicz, a camp alum who attended for seven summers and is now looking forward to being a camp counselor this year. Diagnosed at age 12, Hailey spent the bulk of her middle school years isolated from her peers, in and out of treatment and surgeries. “My camp friends have become my dearest. Through them and with them, I was able to acknowledge my own personal strength and define the type of person I am today,” she says.
Moreover, Hailey—now a sophomore at Northwestern—gained the courage to take control of her life. After seeing the success other campers had with prosthetics at summer camp and other One Step programs, she chose to amputate her leg, getting rid of the pain and discomfort that held her back from living a full life.
Last year, more than 250 kids and teens attended the summer camp in Williams Bay, Wisc. The all-volunteer staff includes nurses, oncologists, ER doctors and anesthesiologists. The on-site medical office provides all the necessary care, and makes it easy for campers to go from canoeing on the lake to a blood draw and back again for more fun. Many of the counselors were once campers themselves.
Over the years, Children’s Oncology Service has developed other programs that provide year-round respite and recreation, all of it underwritten by personal donations, grants, foundations and special events. Most participants are referred to the camp, others learn about it by word of mouth or through the website. The camp has never turned away a single child, and families are asked to pay what they can afford.
“At first I was reluctant to go,” Hailey explains. “By the end of my first day, I was in love with the camp and the incredible people. For the first time in a long while, I stopped putting up an act. I felt completely accepted and at home.”