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Young cancer patients turn to Camp Okizu

November 24, 2011 8:57:40 PM PST
This time of year, many of us take time to think about the positive things that are going on around us. For young cancer patients, they think about a summer camp called Camp Oziku they attend that's free and, more importantly, life changing.

You wouldn't know that all of the kids at Camp Oziku have had life-threatening battles with cancer at first glance. These cancer survivors were the center of family attention at home, because they had been so ill, but at camp, everyone has to work as a team to the best of their ability.

For some, that means cleaning tables in the dining room after lunch. That's where Riktor, the nephew of ABC7's Cheryl Jennings, was when we caught up with him. Riktor is in remission from brain cancer.

The secret to Camp Okizu's success is peer support.

"Often in a school setting, these kids feel very much separate from the rest of the crowd," said Dr. Mike Amylon. "They look different, they're bald, they're either skinny or they're overweight from the Prednisone. Some of them are missing a limb or have an artificial joint and can't move around very well. It makes them feel like they are not as capable as other children."

But at Camp Okizu, kids learn there are no limits. Camp Okizu is a family where kindness is the rule, not the exception. A lot of the counselors were former campers; they're taught that the kids come first.

"People who accomplish whatever they can accomplish will see themselves as stronger people," said John Bell. "By doing that and role modeling the kindness to others, they become those kind of people and they help each other."

We caught up with 17-year-old Donna Mohr helping out in the kitchen again. We met her last year when she was washing the dishes -- a way of helping Camp Okizu save money. Mohr will be training to be a counselor for next year's program.

We also saw C.J. Scheley again, who we met last year after a brutal chemotherapy session. Scheley had a brain tumor known as a medulla blastoma last year, but this year he's enjoying a lot of activities.

That said, he can't forget what it was like when he got the bad news at the age of 15.

"I thought the worst -- the worst case scenario: Death," Scheley said.

Scheley is going to be okay, but that worry about death is always present. There are tributes throughout the camp, from friendship bracelets on trees to painted rocks with special messages, for children who have died.

"We used to plant a tree for every child who passed away, but it just wasn't possible," said Bell. "We'd have hundreds of trees out there."

Bell says Camp Okizu is still thinking big for the future, hoping for donors to step up again in order to build a pavilion that will have an arts and crafts center, breezeway and a meeting area for campers and counselors in-between activities.

"Right now, they all have to meet in front of the little boys' bathroom because we don't have a better site," Bell said.

The pavilion would accommodate 150 kids, but for now it's a $500,000 dream. In the meantime, there are plenty of other dreams that have already come true for campers here.

"You should come to Camp Okizu just to get away, meet new people that understand your story," one girl said.

"It's a fun place to be and you don't have to think about when you get sick," another camper told us.

Camp Okizu is a place where kids can put cancer down for a little while and soar to new heights in their personal lives.

The camp needs golf carts for next summer because of the amount of campers who have brain cancer and have trouble walking. Their next fundraiser is in March. For more details, click here to visit Camp Okizu's website.


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