Providing free camps to kids living with cancer

November 26, 2009 8:06:44 PM PST
This time of year is a great time to thank those people who do so much to help others. That is what the Okizu Foundation in Novato does, by providing free camps to children and families living with cancer. This year, ABC7 takes you on our annual visit to Camp Okizu in the Sierra Foothills.

Lunchtime at Camp Okizu is a big party for kids living with cancer. They don't have to feel self-conscious about the obvious damage to their bodies from their illness and the treatments they endure to save their lives.

Here, it's about fun and friendship. Each child has his or her own counselor to watch over them and give them moral support.

"I had medulla blastoma -- a brain tumor. I was 13," said 15-year-old Nick Nunn. "It was devastating. My first thoughts were, 'Was I going to die?'"

Nick says he loves the fact that he can talk about what he is going through with someone who understands.

"It's not like going around town where people stare or they don't understand how you were," he said. "Here, you go, 'Oh, you got a portocast? So do I.'"

"I had a brain tumor, luckily, had, not have," said 11-year-old Kayla Armstrong who is spending her first summer with Camp Okizu.

Kayla was paired up for the week with counselor Tania Haake. She knows what Kayla's going through. Tania was diagnosed with cancer at the age of six. She is now 22 and a proud survivor.

"I was diagnosed with histiocytosis, so I started coming to camp, family camp, then summer camp," said Tania. "Histiocytosis is a blood disorder. It's related to Leukemia."

Tania is one of the many campers who become counselors at Camp Okizu.

The camp is located in the Berry Creek area, past the Oroville Dam in Butte County. It offers onocology and siblings camps, teen and young adult programs, family weekends and bereavement programs.

"I think it was a wonderful experience growing up," said Tania. "It has definitely helped shape me into who I am today, and now that I can give back and help the kids have a great summer, it's all I can ask for."

Tania's brother, Cisco, started coming to Camp Okizu's siblings camp after she was diagnosed. Now, he's a long-time counselor and the camp's D.J. He went through what most siblings do -- they learn quickly the sick child gets all the attention because it's necessary. He was only 10 at the time.

"Camp kind of opened my eyes and let me kind of release some stress and kind of the feelings towards my sister having cancer," said Cisco. "It's totally changed my life, being here, being a camper."

John Bell and Dr. Mike Amylon founded Camp Okizu 28 years ago. The counselors, doctors and nurses all volunteer their services and take vacation time to be there.

Camp is free, so it takes a lot of donations to make it happen.

The battered economy has really hit non-profit organizations like Camp Okizu really hard, but the need for services for programs like this is even greater.

"There was a 20 percent increase in families needing our services last year," said Bell.

The economy has forced them to make some changes in order to save the programs they have.

"We would like to be building a new arts and crafts building and I think that's probably put on hold for a few years yet," said Bell.

"We were just about to launch a capital campaign to try to retire the debt and create the beginnings of an endowment at the time that everything kind of fell apart," said Dr. Mike.

They've deferred maintenance and personnel replacement for the core staff.

"If we overwork the staff that we have by trying to save money and not hire new people, then eventually, they're not going to be able to deal with that," said Dr. Mike.

Plus, they are still paying down a massive loan that has gone from $5 million down to $3 million on a note personally co-signed by them. However, in spite of the financial issues, the camp still helps every child in need.

"We still never turn anyone away and we don't charge anybody and we're having the time of our lives," said Bell.

"I can't imagine not being here," said Dr. Mike. "It's an incredibly rewarding program to be a part of."

ABC7 first met Kim Hicks when she was a camper back in 1997, trying out her new titanium knee. She was diagnosed with bone cancer in her knee and tibia at the age of 15. That was the first time she was diagnosed with cancer.

"It then metastasized when I was 19 to my lungs and then I had a secondary cancer, renal cell carcinoma in my kidney when I was 22," said Kim. "And now, it's been six years since anything, so pretty optimistic about the future and all of that."

Kim became a camp counselor. Her multiple battles with cancer and her time at Camp Okizu motivated her to apply to medical school to become a doctor.

"If I can be the counselor that made them feel better or boosted their self-esteem during treatment, then my job is done," she said.

"It's awesome. I want to come here every day of the year, it's so fun," said Kayla. "I wish it was open every day of the year. Camp Okizu rocks!"

LINKS:

To learn more about Camp Okizu, including information about how to donate or volunteer, visit www.okizu.org. Their benefit fundraiser is scheduled for March 6, 2010.

Camp Okizu has a wish list you can help with, that ranges from zip loc baggies, to beads, fishing poles and sleeping bags.
Camp Okizu Wish List


Load Comments