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Rural Missouri Magazine

For some kids, Camp Quality is one of the only places
they can go to unwind and forget about their battle against cancer.

by Heather Berry

Terry Torson sits quietly with his camper, Nathan, 8, as they wait for a turn to paddle across the camp’s 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 week.

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, that’s probably the most you’ll 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 won’t 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.

"It’s hard for anyone to understand cancer unless they’ve 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 can’t 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 didn’t want to leave, so Hutchcraft decided to play a game.

"I asked this child what game they would like to play and I thought they’d 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 you’re glad you can offer something like Camp Quality to these adult-like young people who bravely face cancer.

Camp 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 wasn’t 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 his mind.

"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 camper’s extended family, celebrating birthdays together, even standing up with former campers at their wedding.

Camper Candace, 9, checks out the wild, temporary hair color job her camp companion Phyllis receives at the camp’s 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 attending camp.

"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 didn’t 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 organization’s first international camp.

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 security.

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.

"We’re 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.

 

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