April 07, 2020
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Childhood cancer unites families at Ellsworth summer camp

ELLSWORTH, Maine — Midway through their one precious week at sleep-away summer camp, the kids at Camp Rainbow on Tuesday were having a fine time.

On the upper sports field, a group of older campers battled through a raucous game of hockey. At the sunny picnic tables outside the dining hall, some younger girls worked quietly with colored markers and paints. Other campers straggled toward their cabins from the nearby waterfront, wrapped in beach towels and scuffing up the pine needles.

This could be any lakeside summer camp in Maine, but the children and families at Camp Rainbow have a special reason to celebrate the season. The free, one-week session, held each June at the Bangor Y’s Camp Jordan on Branch Lake, hosts Maine youngsters who have been diagnosed with cancer, providing them and their family members with a much needed break from the sometimes grim routines of their lives.

The camp session for children age 4 through high school is funded by the American Cancer Society through donations and fundraisers such as the Relay for Life. Staffed 24 hours a day by doctors and nurses from local hospitals, Camp Rainbow can provide even acutely ill children the opportunity to enjoy the flavor of summer camp, even if they are undergoing chemotherapy or other treatments.

The campers, seemingly engrossed in their chosen activities, can be jarringly candid about their illnesses.

“I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer when I was 8,” said Julia Harris, a petite 12-year-old from Windham who was coloring at the picnic table. “I just had surgery to remove my right ovary and fallopian tube.”

This is Julia’s third summer at Camp Rainbow, and she gets to bring her two sisters and her brother with her.

“I’ve been swimming a lot, and I’ve been taking swimming lessons,” said 11-year-old Ciana Johnson of Hudson. “During free time we hang out and play tether ball, and last night we played capture the flag.”  Cianna’s 13-year-old sister has a cancer diagnosis.

“She had it once when she was 5 and again when she was 10,” Cianna said, piecing together a jigsaw puzzle.

Many of the counselors here are former campers.

“I first came here in 2002, and I didn’t know what to expect,” said volunteer counselor Carl Hanson, 18. “What I found was a family.”

Hanson’s pancreatic cancer was diagnosed when he was just 8 years old. Fortunately, the cancer was treatable with surgery. Hanson had half his pancreas, his gall bladder and part of his small intestine removed. He currently is cancer-free.

“The people I meet here are so amazing,” he said. “I don’t see my own struggles as very big compared with theirs.”

Hanson has attended Camp Rainbow every summer since his surgery. This summer, having turned 18 and graduated from high school, he is volunteering. He said children with cancer come to terms with gritty realities early in life.

“All of us here are a lot older than our years,” he said. “You grow up fast when you go through something like cancer.”

Hanson’s experience has shaped his life in more ways than one: This fall he will enter college at the University of Massachusetts to study biology in preparation for medical school.

One of the younger campers at Camp Rainbow this year is 6-year-old Makayla Southerland of Sanford, who has come for the last three sessions along with her two older sisters Tianna, now 10, and Keisha, 14. The girls’ grandmother, Rose Royal of Springvale, comes with them and stays in a special cabin for mothers and grandmothers. Royal said doctors discovered that Makayla had Wilms’ tumor, a form of kidney cancer most common in children, when the girl was just 3 years old. After intensive treatment including surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, Makayla now is cancer-free, Royal said.

Coming to camp each summer has provided the three girls with a wealth of outdoor adventures as well as the opportunity to meet with other children and families affected by cancer, Royal said. And this year, she added, there is a new baby at home who needs their mother’s attention.

Even Camp Jordan director Emerald Russell, who hails from Winterport, has roots in the Camp Rainbow sessions. Her older sister was affected by brain cancer, Russell said, and the two girls came to camp together each summer for 10 years. When Emerald turned 18, she volunteered at Camp Rainbow and then worked as a counselor at Camp Jordan. This is the 26-year-old’s first summer as the full-time director of the Ellsworth camp. Her sister continues to struggle with the effects of her cancer.

“For a lot of these kids, theirs may be the only family in the community that is struggling with cancer,” Russell said. “There is a real sense that nobody knows what they’re going through.”

Coming to Camp Rainbow fills many needs, she said, speaking above the echoing din of the lunchtime dining hall, as counselors lead a rousing, chair scraping, foot-stomping rendition of “The Grand Old Duke of York.”

Children here are not perceived as “different,” because everyone shares the common denominator of cancer, she said. Healthy siblings get equal attention from counselors and staff without having to vie with sick brothers and sisters. Parents have a chance to relax and enjoy themselves without worrying about child care, and to share problems and insights with other parents.

“This is a place where people connect over cancer,” Russell said, as reflections from the lake outside danced across the wood rafters of the dining hall. “And then they forget about cancer, because this is camp.”



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