Camp Okizu program in Butte County helps siblings of cancer patients

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Camp Okizu (KGO-TV)

This is the perfect time of year to say thank you to a program that's helping thousands of children and families living with cancer in Northern California. It's a place where magic happens. It's called Camp Okizu and it's a nonprofit based in Marin County that provides free summer camp in the Sierra Foothills.

SIBS Camp that's run by Camp Okizu is for young people who are the siblings of sisters and brothers who have cancer. But these children also need healing and sometimes parents don't understand there's even a problem, at first.

"I have five children and my youngest was 6 months old when she was diagnosed with cancer," said Janie Dawes. "And at the time it was just a whirlwind trying to deal with all of that. And trying to make things normal for my four older children. I was with my daughter in the hospital, but my husband would be with the children during the day. We would hang out and say everything is going to be okay."

Dawes says a friend said, "I'm sorry your daughter has cancer, but you guys now qualify to come to Camp Okizu."

RELATED: Campers, founders celebrate joy, profound impact of Camp Okizu

When a friend told her, "I'm sorry your daughter has cancer, but you guys now qualify to come to Camp Okizu," she did not want to send her kids away.

She finally consented after learning that Camp Okizu creates a safe space where the kids can just have fun.

Anna Dawes is 14 now, but she was just 8 years old when Aoife, her tiny sister, was diagnosed with a rare lung cancer tumor.

"It was super frightening for me," she said. "I felt worried. I didn't want to bother my parents cause she was in the hospital and yet I was scared myself and it was really hard."

Eme Dawes is now 16. She was only 10 at the time of her sister's diagnosis.

"I just remember she was coughing all the time and we had to take her to the hospital," said Eme.

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

Niamh Dawes is now 12, but she was only six when Aoife was critically ill.

"I was very sad about it cause she was in the hospital and I was at home and I felt really, really sad," Niamh said.

The music and activities help ease the sadness. Kids love dancing at lunchtime and this song, Uptown Girl, by Billy Joel, is a happy tradition to get them up and moving.

We spoke with John Bell, Camp Okizu's cofounder.

Jennings: "John, this is a brand new pavilion, right?"
Bell: "We just finished it a week before camp started, so we are really happy to have it this year. It enables them to sit and talk to each other in a place where they can all be together and share stories."

"It's so cool, because you have people your own age who understand what you're going through, so you can talk to them about it and share your story," said Anna.

When asked what types of things she was sharing, Anna told us, "Feelings you don't want to tell people like jealousy, sadness. It's hard, especially with a younger sister, they get like toys and presents and the 8-year-old doesn't get anything."

RELATED: More than 500 attend gala to benefit Camp Okizu

"It helps me to see we're not alone," Eme said. "There's other people in the world who have the same problems. And it makes me realize how lucky we are cause my sister's doing real well now."

Six-year-old Aoife is full of energy and is in remission.

"Cancer's gone, but she still has to get scans every three months," Niamh said.

"It was such a big learning lesson for us that our children really need to be part of the ups and downs, the goods and the bads and they needed to know that we were worried," said Janie.

"Each year, we probably touch close to 3,000 people," said Mike Amylon.

RELATED: Camp Okizu marks 35 years of helping kids with cancer

Dr. Mike, as the kids call him, is a pediatric bone marrow transplant specialist. He's also a Camp Okizu cofounder.

He says there is a need for even more services.

"It's a long time between summers in their lives," he said. "So if they had the opportunity to reconnect with that support community in between, I think that would be beneficial to help them process all the issues they are dealing with on a daily basis."

ABC7 has been a proud partner with Camp Okizu for more than 25 years, and it's thanks to you, our viewers, that this camp was built, maintained and even expanded, all because of your generous donations.

Those donations help Camp Okizu create life-changing moments.

Go here for more information about Camp Okizu, to find out how to send a child to camp, how to volunteer and how to make a donation.
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