Camp Okizu offers help, hope for children with cancer

NOVATO, Calif.

Camp Okizu is a spectacular 500 acre camp tucked away in the Sierra Foothills in Butte County. It's for children and families affected by cancer.

The kids get much needed support from their peers, "My grandpa passed away two weeks before my 13th birthday," Okizu camper Henna said. "And a month later, September 27, 2007, I was diagnosed with ALL, leukemia. And it was really hard."

Fellow camper Annina adds, "Camp Okizu is really magical to me, because nowhere else in the world is everyone nice and everyone understands what you've been through."

Young people here are not shy about talking about their illness, with one camper saying, "I'm Tumi and I illness was rhabdomyosarcoma, and I am now healthy and blessed."

And another camper adding, "I was diagnosed with leukemia when I was 5-years-old and I really like Camp Okizu because everyone's the same here."

The word okizu is a Sioux Indian word that can mean many things, like to heal or to come together. That takes on a whole new meaning when there's a flash mob!

Everybody hits the floor when the music starts at lunchtime. It's one of the Camp Okizu rituals that puts a smile on everyone's face. And that's what the co-founders want.

Camp co-founder, Dr. Mike Amylon, worked at the children's hospital at Stanford, "We had a group of people who were looking for recreational opportunities for the kids because the treatments became more intensive and were taking them away from their childhood more and more of the time."

Camp Okizu co-founder John Bell adds, "I had a friend who died of cancer when I was a volunteer with hospice of Marin."

Bell wanted to do something in the name of that friend. So, they joined forces with others 30 years ago. Bell put up $25,000 of his own money to get things started and he paid for camp for 10 years. Now, the budget is nearly $2 million a year and they need help to pay for the rapidly growing programs. They don't ever want to turn anybody away.

"We do sibling programs, we do family programs, we do bereavement programs," Bell said. "All things that were really, really needed. And boy, when you're at one of them and you see the success, how great it is for the people there and what it does for them, you just can't say, oh let's cut this back."

Camp Okizu runs camps back-to-back. Every week new counselors are coming in, but there's no place for them to sleep until the old counselors leave. So, here's what they have to do -- they drag out a bin with an old tarp, spread it out, and sleep outside on the ground.

Most of the counselors are former campers, like Donna who says, "First rule is safety, but for kids, it's have fun. So you have to make sure the kids are engaged and loving every minute of camp."

Molly loves camp so much she volunteered to wash dishes here for four weeks, "It's just giving back to the camp, and the camp has given me so much."

Katie and her sister Molly came to siblings camp because their middle sister Emily had leukemia, "I was 12 when she passed away," Katie said. She has a tattoo on her ankle as a tribute to Emily.

Katie now directs the programs at Camp Okizu. She says this place has changed her life, "It's made me who I am today. I'm going into special education because of being around kids with cancer and growing up with that, and I can relate to kids like that, and I feel like I can make a difference.

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