An enchanting and driven friend of mine travels to Seattle area every summer to volunteer at Camp Agape. Her active schedule involves a lot of volunteering in general but she manages to slip away and fit in this worthy cause, too. I didn’t know all of the details about this endeavor but I could tell it was near and dear to her heart and has deeply affected her. My friend has the unique combination of one of the sharpest minds with a philanthropic heart. She chaired a fundraiser which donated proceeds to Camp Agape. I recently interviewed my lovely and savvy friend about this incredibly special place called Camp Agape.
What inspired you to get involved with Camp Agape?
I first heard about it from my spiritual father, Fr. Tom. I’ve always had a soft spot for underprivileged kids or those who are struggling with illness or abuse. The concept behind the camp is what drew me in. This will be my fourth year to attend as a counselor .
What is the concept behind the camp?
Camp Agape NW provides an all-expense-paid, weeklong, overnight camp for the whole family of a child with cancer. Camp Agape gives children with cancer a chance to feel normal, siblings a chance to feel special, and parents a time to be together. There is a 1 to 1 ratio for every child meaning every child has a full-time buddy and playmate that never leaves him for the entire week. The buddy is there waiting when the child wakes up and stays with him until it is time to go to bed. The camp is free of charge for the child with cancer, the parents or legal guardians, and all siblings.
There are several locations but the one I volunteer at is in the Northwest, outside of Seattle in Gig Harbor which is on the Puget Sound. Families may attend a maximum of two years for each child that is fighting cancer. It is hard to believe, but there are families that have more than one child that is fighting cancer, so they can attend an additional two years. They only other circumstance where families can attend more than two years is in the event of a relapse.
Do the campers have to be from a particular religion?
It’s for all denominations.
Describe the preparation, itinerary and how it revolves around the concept.
We want the child with cancer to feel normal. The directors and nursing staff prepare the counselors on the kids’ needs before they arrive. Specific things for their physical needs, like how to handle their ports, any special conditions to be conscientious of, etc. are covered ahead of time. But we don’t want to focus on that–we just want them to feel normal. The rest of the family is treated extra special. We have just about any kind of food or snack you might want available all day. This includes a full milkshake and smoothie bar, coffee/espresso bar. They can have as much as they want. We try to pamper the parents. They can get haircuts, massages, take naps or do whatever they would like.
The camp operates under the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of San Francisco and is run locally by the Ladies Philoptochos society. There is a local executive board that prepares for the camp year round. The camp directors and clergy that are on site are a combination of Orthodox and Protestant Christians, working side by side. I love that !
As I said, we try to make the siblings feel special and the campers feel normal. For parents, it is time for them to relax and reconnect as a couple and a family . Many couples are emotionally and financially strained but I’ve noticed that the families never seem to act like victims or whiners—they’re very positive and resilient – as are the kids . Some have had to move residences for their child’s treatment. Some are paying for two house payments.
The siblings also really suffer when the families have to pick up and move and many times take a backseat in order for the sick child to be cared for properly. This can cause guilt and anger. Some siblings physically and emotionally regress due to the stress. This week gives them a chance to forget about all of that and have fun.
What are the dates of the camp session? Describe the program and staff.
It’s the 3rd week of July. There are approximately 120 staff members or counselors . There is usually a 20 family maximum with a waiting list. We also have back up counselors because if any counselor gets sick, they have to be pulled from the program. We can’t run the risk of the campers getting sick. We also have a waiting list of families. In the event one of the campers blood counts drop or become ill, those familes unfortunately have to be pulled at the last minute and the next family on the waiting list is notified. We have even had instances where the campers got sick and counts dropped while they were at camp and the entire family had to leave. It is heartbreaking to see the disappointment on their faces.
All of the counselors and staff sleep in tents and the families sleep in cabins. The counselors are ages 18-25 and then we have 5-6 of what are called ” concierge counselors “. We (concierge counselors) oversee 2 entire families and around 10+ counselors and are there to get the families anything they might need from extra blankets, special meals, laundry services – whatever they need.
There is always a theme for the week. In the weeks I’ve been there, the themes were: Lion King, Back to the Future and Minions. We decorate the dining hall every day according to the theme. The entire week we make each day special with games, activities and costumes revolving around the theme. We have skits, races, arts and crafts, kayaking, fishing, swimming, intertubing. One day, we go to the local YMCA to use the pool for the kids. We have soccer matches. During Back to the Future week, we even had the DeLorean car. Each evening we all gather under a big tent and sing songs, dance, karaoke, bring in bands, watch movies. It’s non-stop activity.
Do you get updates from them? This must be hard on you emotionally when you get attached to the campers.
Yes, we all stay in touch. Some of the counselors like myself are located in states pretty far away. Thankfully through social media we can stay connected. One thing that I think is very special is that the families, counselors and staff get to know each other at camp and stay connected and support each other year round and become lilfe long friends. Through treatments, changing diagnosis, ups and downs, they stay connected.
It can be very difficult at times, but I have become a stronger person by knowing these families. Their lives are emotional roller coasters and some of them live life in constant fear of a relapse. But to watch these kids and families who are fighting for their lives keep moving forward, one day at a time, is incredible. These kids are resilient and so mature for their age. Most of them have fought their way through things that the rest of us will hopefully never experience. There have been several years that I knew I might not see that child again. It is extremely difficult at the end of the week to say good-bye. But I remember what my spiritual Father always tells me – “If you give them one good day–go with that because that is one good day that they might not have had.”
How do you “regroup” when you’ve come home?
It’s an adjustment. There is a very peaceful and content feeling that stays with you for awhile. After watching what these families are dealing with, my life is easy. For three weeks or so just about nothing bothers me . But then the stresses of daily life set in and it can be very easy to lose sight of what is really important. It is important for me to do a reality check!
How has this experience enriched your life? How have you grown from it spiritually?
The biggest thing for me is that I’ve never been exposed to terminal illness in my family . I have learned not to take anything for granted. Most of all, I have learned that there are just some things in life that are beyond our control and we can’t fix it. But we can still love and support each other the best we can. I have been enriched not only by the familes, but also the amazing counselors and staff. When you’re in that close of an environment with 18-25 year old counselors, you’d expect them to talk and gossip about things like young adults their age do….but when we gather at the end of the day to regroup, it is the exact opposite. I t’s 45 minutes of twenty-somethings (20 year olds) praising and supporting each other !
The word AGAPE, I never understood until I went there. It means total unconditional love…and it’s there.
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