Camp Okizu marks 35 years of helping kids with cancer

BERRY CREEK, Calif. (KGO) -- A lot of Bay Area families are thankful for a nonprofit that provides free summer camp for children living with cancer. It's called Camp Okizu and it's celebrating its 35th anniversary.

Campers get a lot of positive recognition at Camp Okizu. And when you hear their stories, you'll understand why.

This campsite in the Sierra Foothills is a safe place for children who have siblings with cancer, or, who have lost siblings to cancer.

"About in 2013, my brother was diagnosed with Ewing's Sarcoma and after a hard year, he passed away," said Vanessa, Okizu camper.

RELATED: Camp Okizu offers help, hope to kids with cancer

Vanessa was just 14; her brother was 15 when he was diagnosed and 16 when he died. It was so painful for the entire family.

"I remember that I just felt lonely. I felt at times like I didn't even have parents. I felt like my brother was the one that had parents, a mom and dad, and I was left behind," said Vanessa.

One of the best things about being at the camp, is that this is the one week out of the year where these kids get to be around other children who know what it's like living with a sibling with cancer.

RELATED: Hundreds attend gala to benefit Novato's Camp Okizu

"My brother was diagnosed with ALL Leukemia when he was about 8. So I was 6 and my sister was 5 and that's how we were all introduced to Okizu," said Pattycakes, Okizu counselor.

Cancer touched my family. My nephew Nolan has a brother, who had cancer before he was three years old.

"What do you remember about that?" asked ABC7's Cheryl Jennings.

"I can't really remember much since I was very young, but the parts that I do remember, it was kinda sad, because I couldn't really do stuff with him," said Nolan Phillips, Okizu camper.

"But now, it's much better," said Jennings.

"Yes!" said Phillips.

"I'm at camp pretty much whenever there's a camp program going on, which is mostly why I am retired from Stanford," said Dr. Mike Amylon, Camp Okizu co-founder.

Amylon helps kids talk about their feelings in private bereavement sessions.

"They tell stories of things that have happened to them, how they felt, what they've done to cope with it, who they can talk to and provide a kind of understanding and support and compassion and love that is hard for them to come by from other places," said Amylon.

The kids also learn they can laugh and be silly.

Camp Okizu's counselors are well-trained in helping campers, and they also know how to keep order among hundreds of energetic kids. No pushing or shoving in the food line and some campers even volunteer to do dishes.

Camp Okizu is marking 35 years of providing free camps for children living with cancer and their families. It now serves more than 3,000 participants a year. It's come a long way from the first camp, of 28 kids with cancer, at a rented campsite. John Bell is a camp co-founder.

"We noticed their program didn't meet the needs of Oncology patients, with different dietary issues and a lot of other things," said Bell.

So, John and Dr. Mike took on the expensive and difficult task of building a permanent campsite. Parents came to help.

"Parents were talking about blood counts and other issues around hospitals and realized that peer support programs weren't just going to be great for patients. It was going to be great for all family members, so we started doing family weekends," said Bell.

The need continues to grow, so Okizu is expanding its resources, such as a new pavilion, with the help of generous donors, like the Boris and Vera Bogart Foundation.

The experiences at Camp Okizu can be life-changing. Many campers become counselors and come back every year.

"I think that people should understand that Okizu is a place where people can be themselves and let their soul shine," said Pattycakes.

"When I was 13, about to turn 14, a decade ago now, I was diagnosed with Leukemia as an oncology camper. It's been a huge part of what has shaped me into the woman that I've become. I absolutely loved my time here and I love being able to give that back," said Nagum, Okizu counselor.

If you know a family who needs camp Okizu, or if you want to volunteer or donate, click here.
Copyright © 2021 KGO-TV. All Rights Reserved.