Camp Okizu lets kids with cancer play safely

November 27, 2008 7:51:33 PM PST
A number of families will spend this holiday season dealing with a sick child with cancer, but there is a wonderful program available to help them that has been around for more than a quarter century. It is the Okizu Foundation based in Novato which provides a variety of free summer camps for children with cancer, their siblings and their parents. The doctors and nurses who attend all volunteer their vacation time. ABC7 News takes you to this past summer's session.

"I had osteosarcoma and I was treated at Stanford," said 16-year-old Spadie.

"I had rabideaux sarcoma," said 13-year-old Tumi.

"I went to tons of different doctors to take tons of different tests and then I found I had bone cancer in my femur," said 11-year-old Meghan. "I'm getting sick all the time from chemo, not seeing my friends, being stuck in the hospital, having to relearn to walk."

"I had found out last year, April 26, 2007," said Tumi. "It affected my mouth, that's why I have a scar. I cried like a baby because I was scared. At first I thought I was going to die."

"Sometimes I worry it's going to come back, sometimes, so I pray," said Meghan.

All of these children have learned difficult lessons about cancer. They are among the thousands of kids who come to Camp Okizu in the Sierra every summer. It is just past the Oroville Dam in Butte County. It is a beautiful, safe place for these children. Many are so inspired as campers, they want to give back as they get older.

One of the great things about turning 16 at Camp Okizu is that campers can choose to become counselors, but they have to go through a rigorous training program so they can be the very best.

Spadie is a junior counselor now and is observing the senior counselors to see how they interact with the campers. But she did not want to even come to camp when she first heard about it.

She lost her leg to cancer.

"I didn't know how to walk or anything, and I was really nervous, and I got one of my friends to come with me and she had the same kind of cancer I did and we came together and I had the best year with her," said Spadie.

Spadie is very open about the problems she has with a fake leg.

"I usually keep this in my sleeping bag, it's warm, because otherwise, it's like ice. So I just put it on and it just goes right in and then it's like learning how to walk again," explained Spadie.

She wishes the people who make prosthetic legs could understand what it is like to be a 16-year-old girl.

"So they would understand I want to wear high heels and I want to look normal, just like everyone else," said Spadie.

All of these young people have become full counselors and are able to relate to their young campers because of their own experiences.

"Clear cell sarcoma. It was in my left kidney. I had that removed when I was 2."

"He had gone into remission in December of '98 and then he ended up relapsing and passed away in January of '99."

"My brother was diagnosed when I was 8. He passed away when I was 10."

"At times when my sister was in and out of the hospital, my parents had to spend most of the time there and it was just a difficult thing being that young, not having your parents around all the time. Sometimes you feel resentment and sometimes you feel really sad, like if she wasn't doing well," said counselor Patty Cake.

"It's great. It's really awesome. It's nice seeing the kids happy and stuff like that. I remember when I started coming, how amazing it was."

The founders of Camp Okizu, John Bell and Dr. Mike Amylon, have dedicated their lives to the families who visit this special place. They have put their personal financial security on the line as well, by taking on millions of dollars in loans.

"Good news, it's only three and half million now. Progress is progress is progress. At one time it was five million," said John Bell.

The tough economic climate is a challenge because John and Dr. Mike want to expand services for single-parent families living with cancer. They need volunteers.

"If you could just come for the weekend and be with the kids in the morning, so the parents can have discussion groups and get the support they can get from each other, that's an enormous help to us," said Bell.

Dr. Mike says there is some very encouraging news about pediatric cancer.

"We feel good about the fact that we have gotten to the point where we can cure in the neighborhood of 80 percent of all children with cancer," said Dr. Mike. "When I was a medical student, I was taught that pediatric cancers were incurable."

But now there is a big new concern being studied.

"Both radiation and many of the chemotherapy drugs increase the chances of you getting some other kind of cancer later on in life, and having been through it once, that's the cruelest thing of all, I think," said Dr. Mike. "The incidences are not huge, but it's definitely high enough that it's a big issue."

Scientists are working their way through that for the future, while Camp Okizu helps children right now and encourages those who want to become counselors.

"You showed them, as a role model, that this is the kind of person I want to be, and what this person does is make people better. We are training a whole generation, we hope," said Bell.

If you would like to send a child to camp, join in the family camps, or volunteer, visit www.okizu.org.

Read Cheryl's back story: Click here


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