Camp Okizu brings smiles to kids fighting cancer

NOVATO, Calif.

"I had a CT scan and that's when they found a mass in my brain. Ii went through surgery, chemotherapy and radiation," Janessa says.

"It's peripheral nerve sheet tumor and it's up in my neck," 11-year-old Mariah says.

She has had five surgeries and chemotherapy every other year.

"I had my nerve taken out of my arm because there's beads of tumors all up and down my arm. So, they had to take that out, so now I can't use my arm at all," she explains.

She and the other kids can come to Camp Okizu in the Berry Creek area in the Sierra Foothills and know kids will not make fun of them there.

"My family says good stuff, but some kids at school tease me a lot, mean stuff. I just kind of ignore them. It's just a safe place and I can express all my feelings and not hide anything," Mariah says.

Janessa says, "I've gotten teased lots of times too. 'How come you're bald?' And, making fun of me. I'm really hurt. It was very hard."

"Medulla Blastoma, brain tumor... I think it was the size of a quarter, and they had to cut open the back of the skull, and take out a piece of the skull, and radiation and chemo treatment," Nick says.

The treatment affected the way he walked, so he had to have braces last year, but he is doing better now and can walk without them.

David has the same scar Nick has. He went to camp even though he had just started chemotherapy that made him sick to his stomach and too tired to walk.

"I'm getting sick every day and doing archery and boating, which is fun, and coming back for lunch, and being chauffeured everywhere, which is nice," he says.

"It's amazing to see someone else that has the exact same thing as you. But, in an earlier stage, giving him some advice, you know, things to watch out for," Nick says.

The carts that chauffer some campers around were donated years ago, but they are wearing out.

"We have a much greater need for them because of the neurological patients who require a lot of transportation," John Bell says.

Bell and Dr. Mike Amylon are co-founders of Camp Okizu. Bell says the $5.5 million they borrowed eight years ago to buy the 500-acre property and build the camp is now down to $3.3 million.

So, they cut costs where they can, and rely on a small paid staff, plus 600 volunteers to keep things going. They do not want to cut any camp programs. Amylon is a bone marrow transplant specialist. He says the encouraging news for children with cancer these days is that the cure rate is around 80 per cent.

"The outlook is better than it was, so we're making progress. The way we're doing that is to get more and more aggressive with treatment for these kids. They pay a high price, but a lot of the side effects are temporary," he says.

Some kids love Camp Okizu so much they actually volunteer to spend a week there washing dishes. They are called "the dishies."

"A dishie is someone who is under the age of 18 that basically helps run the kitchen," Orley Barzilay explains.

"You wash dishes and you chill out and have some fun and help the campers be campers," Donna says.

"It definitely helps out the camp in terms of money because you know they're in trouble with money. And, I think I like it. I really like volunteering," Brian says.

The dishies have each had their own battles with cancer.

Brian was born with a brain tumor. Donna had leukemia. Orley had a brain tumor.

Brian says he does it, "Because I love camp. I've been coming for nine years and I want to give back."

Daniel is a long-time counselor. He went to Siblings Camp when he was younger.

"My brother was diagnosed with Osteo Sarcoma when I was 8. He was 10. He passed away 2 years later when I was 10," Daniel says. "I don't know what I would have done without Sibs Camp. I don't know where I would be in life. I don't think it would be as bright as it is now."

Daniel is a double major in psychology and sociology in college, and tries to fit in as many weeks as possible at camp.

"I couldn't imagine being anywhere else during my summer. It's the most magical place I've ever been and I love creating that kind of atmosphere for the kids," he says.

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