A girl who looks no more than 9 years old spins gracefully — 25 feet in the air — her small hands gripping strips of bright blue silk, hanging from...
Facing cancer together
One of the very first activities at Camp Angel involves getting all of the campers to stand in a line.
Campers are then asked to step forward when a leader calls out a characteristic that speaks to them.
When prompted by their favorite foods, colors or animals, kids gradually start stepping forward in small groups.
But it’s not until the end, when the kids are prompted with, “If you love someone who has or had cancer,” that everyone steps forward and recognizes — in an obvious and physical way — that they all have something pretty important in common.
“I think it opens a door, as soon as people can look left and right and see that everyone here understands,” said Dan Mundt, a 2015 Camp Angel staff member.“Then they’re so much more open.”
Camaraderie amid complexity
Geared toward ages 5 to 18, Camp Angel — a project of the local nonprofit Angel Foundation — is a three-day camp for kids who have a parent with a current or past cancer diagnosis.
It’s a lot like other summer camps, complete with T-shirt tie-dying, ropes courses and a variety of other traditional camp experiences.
Now in its 11th summer, Camp Angel (formerly known as Kids Kamp) is held at Camp Eden Wood, a collection of cabins north of Eden Prairie.
“Camp is a fun and therapeutic opportunity for children and teens who have a parent with cancer to be around other kids like themselves,” said Melissa Turgeon, the director of Facing Cancer Together at the Angel Foundation.
Program staff and volunteers encourage kids to talk with their peers — kids going through the same thing — about the tough disruption that inevitably comes out of a situation involving cancer.
Missy Lundquist, one of the camp’s co-founders, said the camp fosters a special camaraderie among the kids.
“It really helps them feel less isolated and normalizes a really abnormal situation,” she said.
The camp’s other co-founder, Janice Haines, said Camp Angel started more than a decade ago when she and Lundquist recognized there weren’t many places to support the children of cancer patients.
“There was a need for it,” Haines said. “It was instantaneously popular.”
There are two sessions of Camp Angel — one in June and one in August — each averaging about 100 kids.
“We’re unique in that we serve families with any type of cancer — any stage of the diagnosis too,” Haines said. “We have newly diagnosed and we have campers who come back years later just because of the connections.”
Those connections are part of what make the camp special for so many kids.
Numerous specially trained staff and volunteers, including teen mentors, give campers a nearly 1-1 counselor-to-camper ratio.
All of the teen mentors have attended camp themselves, meaning they, too, have experience with cancer in their families.
Teen mentor Lucas Kempf of St. Louis Park came to camp after his mom was diagnosed with cancer.
Now he’s happy to give back by volunteering as a mentor.
“I was overwhelmed by the positivity and support,” Kempf said about his first time at Camp Angel. “There’s no drama. It’s easier to be yourself around people who know what you’re going through.”
Eleven-year-old camper Wyatt Jellison felt supported at camp.
“You’re not going to get teased,” he said. “No one is going to judge you here.”
Volunteers at Camp Angel also include cancer survivors and medical professionals, offering campers a rich depth of knowledge and understanding.
It’s free, flexible
At Camp Angel, ages 5 to 12 attend day camp. Ages 13 to 18 are encouraged to stay overnight.
Perhaps what’s most surprising about Camp Angel is the cost: It’s free.
Paying for camp, while also affording treatment and lost work hours, isn’t easy for families.
“This is a way for them to have a normal childhood experience under extraordinary circumstances, and without costing the family money,” Lundquist said.
The Angel Foundation, established in 2001, also offers year-round help for families.
Camp is an extension of Facing Cancer Together, an Angel Foundation program that offers families with young children and teens — who are living with a parental cancer diagnosis — receive accurate, age-appropriate information about cancer and its effects on the family at no cost to participants.
During camp, kids can talk about cancer with each other and their leaders.
But it’s just as important that campers take those skills home, Lundquist said.
Communication, of course, is a two-way street, so parents are given the opportunity to learn these skills, too, with a drop-in parent support group each morning of camp.
Parents can meet some of the other parents and expand their own support network and knowledge — or they can simply go home and have a few days to themselves.
Finding some time to be alone, especially when children are young, can be just as therapeutic, Lundquist said.
Seeing real change
Whether kids are new to camp (and cancer) or camp/cancer veterans, Lundquist said the transformations campers experience over the three days is always remarkable.
On the final day of camp, there’s a special family celebration.
“They learn they’re not alone. They get to learn that they can handle it,” she said. “They still get to be a kid — even in the midst of a very trying experience in the family. The power of being around other people who share a challenging experience, it just lessens your load.”
Lauren Cutshall is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and a student at the University of Minnesota.
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