Summer camp allows children with cancer a chance to be kids again

When Marissa Boudreaux was diagnosed with leukemia at 8 years old, her life changed overnight, she said.

Boudreaux, now 19, said she went from being thought of as “normal” to being known as the “sick child,” one whom others pitied and tried to protect.

But when her mother discovered Camp Quality Louisiana, a free summer camp for children with cancer, and their siblings, Boudreaux said she got the chance to experience a carefree childhood once again.

“It was an escape,” she said. “It was how I could be ‘normal’ during one of the hardest times of my life.”

She said it was difficult at first to be away from her mother because of the strong relationship the two formed during treatment. Her mother, Tanya, said it was difficult for her as well.

“I was afraid to let her go at first because, you know, you want to protect them, but once I realized it was very organized and controlled, I felt comfortable,” she said. “She made friends and had fun. She was very, very happy.”

The family camped at a site nearby, just in case something went wrong. Her mother laughed as she remembered checking on her daughter from binoculars across the lake.

Although she wanted to be with her, she said, she was glad that her daughter was able to spend a week away from everything she associated with leukemia.

“It’s really more about letting them go and having their time,” she said.

Boudreaux said some of her favorite memories of camp were playing Minute to Win It-style games and singing in the annual talent show.

She said Camp Quality was structured like any other summer camp — no one talked about cancer, and she wasn’t treated with kid gloves anymore.

“There are different types of people that surround you when you’re sick like that long-term,” Boudreaux said.

“Some people treat you like you’re wrapped in bubble wrap. Some are the ones who wrap you in the bubble wrap. And some are the ones who encourage you to run at the wall. At Camp Quality, they encourage you to run at the wall.”

After attending the camp from ages 9 to 16, she became a companion at age 18 to one of the campers, a sibling of a child with cancer.

Each child at the camp gets assigned an older companion to guide him or her through daily activities.

Boudreaux said she was worried that she wouldn’t be able to make the transition from camper to companion. But by the second day, she said, she had gotten the hang of it.

“My first camper was Keeley. She was 6 then, and I taught her how to tie her shoes,” Boudreaux said. “We just had a blast.”

Camp Quality is an international organization that has operated in Louisiana since 1989. The Louisiana camp is one of 15 other camps in the U.S. and runs solely off donations and grants.

Director Alan Barth said the camp’s mission is “letting kids with cancer be kids again.”

“During this week, we never talk about the disease,” Barth said. “We never talk about treatments or anything else like that. We just have a good time.”

Barth said 28 to 35 children each year attend the Louisiana camp, scheduled this year for July 23-28 at King’s Camp in Mer Rouge. About 17 have signed up so far, he said, leaving “plenty of space” for new campers.

Barth said he and his team also host events throughout the year, including a reunion in the fall, a butterfly release at St. Jude Fall Fest in Zwolle, and a 5K fundraiser in the spring.

Barth said this year the group raised $8,500 at the 5K — over three times the usual amount — thanks to a substantial donation from Amerigroup Insurance Co.

He said donations and grants from large companies are becoming more important now that the camp can no longer rely on telethons for funding. He said the last telethon it held two years ago flopped.

“We almost lost money on the event,” he said.

Barth said he has been busy writing grants and recruiting companions for this year’s event. He started working at the camp about five years ago as kitchen manager and stepped in as director last year when the previous director received a job out of state.

Barth said he has a special connection to the camp.

“I actually had cancer 13 years ago myself,” he said. “So I can relate to these kids a lot.”

He said he harbored reservations about working there but had a change of heart once he met the campers.

“These kids come to camp, and they’re not focusing on their cancer,” he said.

“They’re just having fun, and nobody judges them. It’s a judgment-free area. They might have scars from where they had surgery, but nobody says anything. They’re accepted. There’s no pressure. Personally, it just makes me feel good to know that they are really enjoying themselves for a week.”

He said siblings, too, are given the chance to be kids again at Camp Quality. “Siblings have a tough time, too, because they’re not getting the attention that the cancer kids are,” Barth said.

Although Camp Quality accepts siblings on a space-available basis, he said, the Louisiana camp usually has room.

In addition to campers, the camp is recruiting companions and volunteers. Barth said many companions were once campers themselves. He said they often form a bond with the children and keep in contact after camp is over. He said he, too, keeps in touch with campers by inviting them to reunions and sending them birthday cards.

Barth said that this year campers can look forward to horseback riding, canoeing, rope courses, archery, arts and crafts, and swimming.

Three or four nurses are available at all times to give the children medicine and check on them. He said those who have restrictions will be given a schedule catered to their needs.

Most importantly, he said, the kids will have a week to let loose and be themselves.

“It’s kind of like Disneyland,” Barth said. “They say that’s the happiest place on Earth. Well, this is the happiest place on Earth when the kids are there.”

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For more information, contact Barth at 318-547-4319 or alan.barth@campqualityusa.org. To register as a camper or as a volunteer, visit www.campqualityusa.org/la.””

(Special to the American Press)

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