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Giving young cancer warriors

The Pediatric Cancer Foundation of the Lehigh Valley (PCFLV) held a week-long camp for pediatric cancer patients and their siblings on the campus of Cedar Crest College June 19 to 23.

Camp Smile, just one the many free services and opportunities PCFLV offers to its cancer warriors and their families, gave campers a chance to explore art classes, theater, sports, and swimming, and visit with many special guests from the community.

Emma Rawlings, a senior at California University of Pa. majoring in public relations, interned with the camp this year.

“It really is amazing how quickly everyone here becomes a family,” she said.

The camp is celebrating its fifth year, said Michelle Zenie, PCFLV’s executive director.

“Our inspiration for the camp,” Zenie said, “is that we were looking for some funds, and one organization suggested we team up with the Coco (Camelot for Children) Foundation to do something together.

“We decided to start this camp, because no one else does. While the Coco Foundation isn’t a part of the camp any longer, we’ve continued the program,” Zenie said.

The counselors, many of whom are returning campers, work with the kids who are grouped into Lions (ages 4 – 6), Tigers (ages 7 – 9), and Bears (ages 10 – 12) or, as Kirsten Almeida, owner and founder of the Emmaus-based “Star of the Day” theater troop calls them, “littles, middles, and bigs.”

Her middles were rehearsing their big musical number for the Friday showcase, to which parents and families were invited, on the Tompkins College Center’s Samuels Theater stage.

“I chose ‘Waving Through a Window,’ from this year’s Tony Award-winning ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ for them to perform,” Almeida said. “It’s all about overcoming obstacles, and being pushed to the edge – on the outside looking in, which is absolutely something these kids can relate to.”

Almeida’s “littles” have been practicing “How Far I’ll Go,” from the film “Moana,” another inspirational song about finding strength in yourself. Her “bigs” will perform “Freak Flag,” from the musical “Shrek,” because the song encourages everyone to embrace who they are.

“I lost my best friend of 28 years to cancer – she learned about her diagnosis and passed away in a week, and so I’m always looking for ways to give back [to this community].

“I just want to help these kids feel normal for a few hours,” Almeida said. “So I choose age-appropriate popular pieces or pieces that I know will be fun to perform, and then I teach the kids to tell a story through music and movement.”

It’s obvious from the giggles, hugs and laughter that after three and a half days, everyone’s bonded.

“Our goal really is for everyone to be together and have fun and connect with peers that have similar experiences,” said Tracy Stauffer, marketing and community relations coordinator.

“We invite the cancer warriors, their siblings, and siblings of kids who’ve passed,” Stauffer said. “And many of our campers have returned year after year and eventually become counselors-in-training and then, when they’re 18, become counselors.”

“It really is all about community and family,” said Assistant Executive Director Lisa Kappes. “We want to make people smile, and so we spend a few months planning for the week-long camp, sending out requests for volunteers and application forms for the campers.

“We had so many former campers wanting to return as counselors that we had to turn a few away. Our ratio this year is practically 1:1,” she said.

“It’s a family that no one wants to be in, but we welcome everyone with open arms,” Stauffer said. “Sometimes the kids who are new to the camp might be a bit nervous on day one, but by day tw, you’d never know. It really is an instant bond.”

Parents also appreciate the respite. It’s a challenge, Stauffer said, for parents to find and trust someone who’s accustomed to dealing with their kids’ diagnoses and treatments.

“We get it,” said Stauffer, mother of one of the 11-year-old campers who’s been a cancer warrior for two years, “and they trust us.”

This year’s Camp Smile sponsors included: Dick Blick, Dave Fry, Rutler’s Screen Printing, Garrison Carida/Star Wars, Ellen Kalinosky, Gym Guyz, Archery Addictions, Menchies, Cedar Crest College, Sarah Lerew Photography, Hilary Stahler, “More Than Music LLC,” Kirsten Egan, “Star of the Day,” John Fries/Lehigh Valley Drone, Mindful Kids Yoga, Yogi Joe, Let’s Bounce Around, Salisbury HS Cheerleaders, Liz Magno (Artist), and the Whitehall Police Department.

Emma Rawlings, Tracy Stauffer, Lisa Kappes, Michelle Zende , the planners and coordinators behind Camp Smile.