Campers, founders celebrate joy, profound impact of Camp Okizu

BERRY CREEK, Calif. (KGO) -- We love to take time out on Thanksgiving to show you children who are so grateful to a free summer camp program that helps them deal with the fact that they are living with cancer. It's called Camp Okizu.

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Nearly 10,000 children have spent time at the camp in the more than 35 years since it was founded to help children and families living with cancer.

The Camp Okizu founders include John Bell and Dr. Mike Amylon, a bone marrow transplant specialist and the late Art Ablin, who passed away in August 2017.

You can see his name and his wife's name enshrined on a plaque in the lodge where kids eat lunch. Dr. Art was a pioneer in the treatment of childhood cancer, working at UC Benioff Children's Hospital. He volunteered at Camp Okizu starting in 1981.

"He not only saved a lot of these kids from the disease, but also helped them get through the program and has been part of it all that time," said Bell.

At the camp, kids can just be kids -- having a good time, not thinking about their illness. But the trauma they endure from cancer and the treatments affects them drastically, physically and mentally.

"So I had brain cancer and the tumor grew in my optic nerve, the thing that connects your eye to your brain. So they had to cut the optic nerve to get the tumor out," said Camp Okizu camper Isaac.

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When we first met him a couple of years ago, sadly, then and now he's been the target of cruel comments when he's not at camp.

When asked if he got bullied while not at the camp Isaac responded, "We all do. Everyone here at least once. And if they didn't -- they're lucky."

"I think all of them during the time they're on active treatment, if they have no hair or gain a lot of weight from the prednisone, or they lost a lot of weight because they're throwing up with chemotherapy -- they look different," said Amylon. "And so during the active treatment part, probably most of them get bullied."

At Camp Okizu, campers learn quickly that it is a safe place. Their families can come to family camps on designated weekends.

"The real core of what we do was expressed very eloquently by a dad of a family that had been participating in a program for several years," Amylon told ABC7 News. "The way he put it was, we go to the hospital to get rid of the cancer and we come to Okizu to heal."

Young people can not only heal, but they can thrive and learn leadership skills.

"I'll be a teacher and getting my master's as well," said "Flyer," another camper. "And I'll be a teacher and have summers off to come back."

We first met "Flyer" when she was a young "dishy," washing dishes after meals at the camp in her quest to become a junior counselor. Now, she's a camp counselor.

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"I had infant leukemia and don't remember a lot of it," she told ABC7 News. "But I also had thyroid cancer in high school and I was able to share those experiences with the kids and it's like: 'You had cancer?' It's nice to connect on those levels."

A lot of parents are concerned about sending kids to camp for the first time because they've gone through so much. But they don't need to worry because there are doctors and nurses on duty there 24-7.

"It brought me back to why I went into medicine to begin with, why I went into pediatric oncology," said Dr. Vincent Kiley. "I get more out of it than I contribute. I just love being up here."

"You see children from all different types of backgrounds coming from Children's Hospital Oakland, where we have a lot of different ethnic, socioeconomic backgrounds," said Dr. Nahai Lalefar. "In the clinic and hospital, they're very reserved and here -- they're just like the normal kids. For me, it's awe-inspiring. I can only imagine what it is for them."

When asked what she thinks about Camp Okizu, camper Sophia said, "I think it's fun and everybody is kind of like a big family cause we all know what each other's been through."

"I think Camp Okizu is a really fun place where no one judges you and everyone has fun together and you can all do whatever you want to do without feeling like you're different," said camper Enzo.

"I think Okizu's a really good place for those who have had a bit of sadness in their life," said camper Anika. "It's amazing and everybody here is super caring and kind."

If you know a family who needs camp Okizu, or if you want to volunteer or donate, click here.
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