Southwest Kids Cancer Foundation offers kids with cancer a summer camp experience. Cancer is overwhelming, scary, and painful. This makes the normalcy of going to summer camp all the more important. It gives them a break from the bad stuff and helps them just be kids.
We think that all kids should be able to go to summer camp, all the more so if they are having health issues and can be accommodated. As such, we hope that our small grant to this organization helps even more children battling cancer to have a wonderful and joyous summer. It is also our fervent wish that the summer camp experience will give these deserving campers, the renewed energy and confidence they need to help them get well! We spoke with Southwest Kids Cancer Foundation Executive Director Ashley Larson to find out more about this important work:
Kars4Kids: Arizona Camp Sunrise is your summer camp for children with cancer, or for those who have experienced cancer. Why is it important for children with cancer to have a summer camp experience?
Ashley Larson: Southwest Kids Cancer Foundation believes that a child with cancer should have the same opportunities to experience joys and freedoms as a healthy child, including a meaningful camp experience. A cancer diagnosis is extremely impactful in a multitude of ways and the effects of their illness or treatment can last long after the child is in remission. At camp, we give our kids the opportunity to try new things, make new friends, and step outside of their comfort zone!
Cancer has already taken away so much from these children; we get to renew their sense of normalcy in participating in camp activities just as any other child would. Our kids find great comfort in making friends with those who have also been through the trials of a cancer diagnosis and can understand them in a way that others cannot. The friendships that these kids make while at camp truly last a lifetime. Many of our volunteers are also cancer survivors and are examples to the children of how a cancer diagnosis doesn’t have to limit the life you choose to live!
Kars4Kids: What are some of the challenges of running a summer camp for children with cancer and how are these issues addressed? Does it happen that some children are too sick to be accepted to your camp?
Ashley Larson: The challenge with cancer is that it impacts every person differently. The children attending our camp are in various stages of treatment for a variety of different cancer diagnoses. We often find that there is a broad spectrum of both physical and mental disabilities that need to be accounted for when creating programing and planning a week of camp. Our team is extremely dedicated to ensuring that each child receives the most out of camp possible.
Regardless of their ability level, if a kid wants to try something new, we will do everything in our power to provide them a safe, secure way to try! When a child is too sick to attend camp or is still in active treatment that prohibits them from being away from home or the hospital, we try to bring camp to them! Our “Camp in the Hospital” program plan is designed to bring some of the camp activities such as campfire songs, gardening, friendship bracelet making, and other various camp themed crafts, to those who cannot attend camp in person.
Kars4Kids: The activities offered at camp sound much like the activities at other summer camps, except for your famous Jell-O war. Can you tell us about that?
Ashley Larson: Many years ago, we asked our campers what they thought the worst part of being in the hospital was… Their answer? All the Jell-O the nurses made them eat. From there an idea was born that has turned into an annual tradition.
Each year we make hundreds of boxes of Jell-O and gather everyone out on the sports field wearing crazy costumes and clothes that the kids bring or pick out! Everyone grabs a bag and when the signal is given, they start throwing Jell-O everywhere, usually lasting about 10 minutes or so and including about 150 people on average! Jell-O war is so fun, absolutely hilarious and totally sticky!
Kars4Kids: Can you tell us about Arizona Camp Sidekicks? Is it held at the same time as Arizona Camp Sunrise? Do the two sets of campers interact? How many camp sessions for each group do you typically run during the summer camp season?
Ashley Larson: Camp Sidekicks was specifically created as a place for the siblings of cancer survivors to connect and bond with each other. Often, when a child is sick they become the primary focus and the sibling(s) wants or needs to become less of a priority as it is not as important as the life and death fight against cancer. Because of this, we hold our camps separately and allow the Sidekicks campers to come the week before their survivor siblings go to Sunrise. We separated the weeks to allow our Sidekicks campers to make friends and bond with others who can relate to the situation they are in being in the sibling of a sick kid.
Allowing them their own week of camp separate from their sibling gives them the freedom to connect with others who share the same struggles, emotions and uncertainty of having a brother or sister with cancer. Giving them their own time to be the priority and feel heard by others is something that the Sidekicks really value, plus they get to come to camp first 😊! Our Sidekicks camp is one week long and our Sunrise camp is one week long, so we run two full weeks of camp, total each summer.
Kars4Kids: Southwest Kids Cancer Foundation also runs a day camp for younger children. Can you tell us a bit about this program?
Ashley Larson: Our day camps are for our younger kids ages 3-7. We hold two weeks of day camp, one for survivors and one for their siblings at a local school that allows us to use their gym and classroom space. Each week is packed full of fun activities with day trips to the Phoenix Zoo, puppet shows, the Pangea Dinosaur Exhibit, the Phoenix Aquarium, and swimming at a local water park. Many of the day camp activities are graciously funded by local businesses or community members. When we aren’t on a fun adventure together, our volunteers put together many great games in the gym or on the playground and organize fantastic arts and crafts projects for the kids to bring home to their families!
Kars4Kids: Your Leaders-in-Training program is mostly filled by former Sunrise and Sidekicks campers. How many teens are typically in this program? Are some of your LITs still battling cancer? How do the experiences of cancer survivors and their siblings inform their readiness for leadership and the experience of being a leader?
Ashley Larson: Our Leaders-in-Training (LIT) program typically has anywhere from 10 to 20 participants at any given time. Usually this group is split between the two weeks of camp, though some volunteer to help out at both weeks. Cancer is always at risk of relapse, and while most of our LITs are in remission or were a Sidekicks camper, we have had several that were still battling cancer while in the program.
The goal of this program is to help nurture leadership and personal growth as these teens head into their college years and adulthood. Having cancer at a young age can make it hard to think about the future. Our LITs are examples of those who have continued to live their lives beyond a cancer diagnosis (or a sibling’s diagnosis) and have planned for the future. This program benefits both the LITs and also the younger campers as they get to view an example of someone who went through our camp programs and now gets to give back to something bigger than themselves.
Kars4Kids: What percentage of your staff works in a volunteer capacity? Can you tell us a bit about the various volunteer positions you offer?
Ashley Larson: 99% of our staff are volunteers! I am the only paid employee, acting as both the CEO and president of the foundation. Our camp director, program coordinator, family coordinator and every other staff member helps make camp possible each year and to do so in a volunteer capacity. We have several different opportunities for people who want to help us out! You can visit our website (swkcf.org) for more information on how to volunteer with us!