For some kids, Camp Quality is one of the only places
they can go to unwind and forget about their battle against cancer.
Torson sits quietly with his camper, Nathan, 8, as they wait for a
turn to paddle across the camps lake in a canoe. The quiet moments
spent together as camper and companion at this cancer camp are as
important as the times spent laughing and cutting up together.
While their roommates take an afternoon nap, campers
Amber and Darlene, ages 15, chatter and laugh as they sort through clothing
which has somehow merged into one huge mountain on the floor during the
Although the two girls have roomed together at
camp for several summers, Amber asks, "Now, what kind did you have?"
"Oh, it was a blood thing," Darlene replies with
a shrug, as she continues sorting.
At Northwest Missouri Camp Quality near Stewartsville,
thats probably the most youll hear any of these kids talk
about their battles, and victories, against cancer.
Camp Quality is a summer camp and year-round support
program for children ages 4-17 who are fighting cancer or are in remission
from the disease. But you wont find any victims here. Outside camp,
these kids have to be little adults, but at camp they can leave cancer
at the gate and just be kids again.
"Its hard for anyone to understand cancer
unless theyve had it or dealt with it personally with a family member,"
says Veronica Wilson, 21, a cancer survivor and former camper.
Camp director Cindy Hutchcraft got addicted to
the kids and camp after volunteering 15 years ago.
"These kids just wrap themselves around you,"
says Hutchcraft. "You cant help but get hooked."
Hutchcraft recalls a 5-year-old camper who sat beside her as they boarded
the bus for home one year. The camper didnt want to leave, so Hutchcraft
decided to play a game.
"I asked this child what game they would like
to play and I thought theyd say something like I spy,
" says Hutchcraft, "But the kid said they wanted to play Pick-your-day-to-be-sick.
Puzzled, Hutchcraft asked how to play and the
child explained that if you take chemo on Friday, you feel really bad
over the weekend, so you usually want to pick another day.
That, Hutchcraft says, is when youre glad
you can offer something like Camp Quality to these adult-like young people
who bravely face cancer.
Quality companion Page DeRuyscher allows a camper, Haley, 8, to write
a note on her arm instead of using the camp memory booklets each camper
and companion is given towards the end of the week.
All the workers are volunteers. John Hickman,
a member of the Camp Quality national board, says even Hutchcraft, who
was offered a small stipend for her work as director, turned the money
back in to buy camp supplies.
Hickman began working with Camp Quality as a companion
to a camper. Each child attending camp, no matter their age, is assigned
a companion a 24-hour shadow whose mission is to make camp the
best experience it can be.
At the end of his first camp, Hickman wasnt
sure he would return. His 8-year-old camper, Bobby, had a brain tumor.
One of the challenges Hickman faced with his camper
was that Bobby would only eat Ruffles potato chips and drink Pepsi, making
any mealtime a real challenge for John and his camper.
It was on the last day of camp when Hickman changed
"Bobby was boarding the bus to go home and he
turned to me and said, John, I love you. Will you be my companion
next year? I was hooked."
Hutchcraft says companions are often the only
people campers will communicate with besides their family members. Many
companions become part of their campers extended family, celebrating
birthdays together, even standing up with former campers at their wedding.
Candace, 9, checks out the wild, temporary hair color job her camp
companion Phyllis receives at the camps beauty salon. Companions
at Northwest Missouri Camp Quality are great sports and willing to
try any of the camp activities their campers wish to participate in.
Companions are usually college kids, although
there are many others who volunteer as camper companions, too. While most
are from Missouri, companions come from other states as well. Often, campers
graduate from camp at age 17 and later return as companions to other kids
"The Camp Quality staff and companions understood
exactly what I was going through when nobody else did," says Wilson, a
camper-turned-companion. "They help you work through things you might
be facing as a kid with cancer."
Wilson will tell you life outside of camp can
be painful in more ways than one. In 1995, on Halloween, the then 15-year-old
found out she had bone cancer.
"People I didnt even know would ask me if I had AIDS or what was
wrong with me," says Wilson. "They would talk about you just loud enough
that you could hear them and that was cruel."
The doctors gave Wilson a 2 percent chance of
surviving and prepared her parents for what seemed inevitable. But the
positive, high-spirited teen beat the odds and is glad she can be there
for other campers as they face the disease.
Camp Quality was formed in 1983 when an Australian
woman, Vera Entwistle, read of the plight of children with cancer in her
country. Entwistle founded Camp Quality as a support program for the kids
and their families. Northwest Missourian Kay Jensen heard of the Australian
camp and wanted something similar for kids in the United States. In 1986,
Northwest Missouri Camp Quality opened, the organizations first
Today there are 56 camps held in 19 countries.
Twelve of those are in the United States, with four located in Missouri.
Amazingly, Camp Quality is free. The non-profit
group receives no government funding. Hutchcraft says it takes about $85,000
a year to operate Northwest Missouri Camp Quality, all of which is raised
by community clubs and by parents of the kids. One parent alone raised
$10,000 for camp.
"It costs about $700 for each kid to attend camp
and a reunion gathering in the fall as well as the year-long camp support
system we have," says Hutchcraft.
This year, Northwest Missouri Camp Quality hosted
93 campers and 99 companions, not counting about 175 other volunteers
including cooks, entertainers, instructors and medical staff. Even area
law enforcement officers volunteered their time to serve as 24-hour camp
|A group of campers
get to know each other.
While at camp the kids are presented more things
to do than they can possibly attempt in a week. Horseback riding, swimming,
fishing and canoeing are favorite camp activities. The camp even has a
flower shop where kids can send a flower to a camper buddy or staff member
free. And nearly every kid makes a visit to the beauty shop sometime during
the week to get rub-on tattoos or have their hair sprayed some temporary
wild color or design.
"Were here to focus on improving the quality
of life for each child," says Hutchcraft. "The rewards we see far outweigh
any cost involved."
For more information about Northwest Missouri
Camp Quality, contact Cindy Hutchcraft at P. O. Box 19, Union Star, MO
64494. To find out more about Camp Quality, including the three other
Missouri camps, visit their Web site at www.campqualityusa.org.