Young Campers ‘Reach for Sky’ in Break from Reality of Cancer

Times Staff Writer

Amid the oohs, aahs, giggling and laughter of the 42 day campers touring the San Diego Humane Society’s barnyard was the feeling that the young campers were “normal,” despite their bouts with cancer.

The youngsters, ages 4 to 8, are part of a special six-day “Camp Reach for the Sky,” a program that gives San Diego-area children suffering from cancer an opportunity to break the sometimes painful reality of trips to the doctor, said Barbara Wiggins, camp director.

“This is the type of activity these kids need to help them expand their horizons beyond their illness,” Wiggins said, as one camper, 7-year-old Tracie Mlyniec, made her way around the Humane Society’s barnyard identifying all of the animals.

A Big Thanks in Front of Camera

Tracie, who has a brain tumor, has participated twice in the camp, sponsored by the American Cancer Society. Like most of the other children, she has no visible signs of her illness and had no problem making her way around the barnyard or Tecolote Park, where the campers had a snack before continuing with the day’s activities.

During a Thursday-morning videotaping for a cancer society fund-raising auction next week, Tracie made sure her voice would be heard above that of the other children. “Thank you,” she screamed while waving in front of the camera.

Although there are no figures of the number of San Diego children suffering from cancer, Albert Martinez, a pediatrician and the camp’s physician, said the forms of cancer the campers suffer from are common nationwide. The most common, he said, is leukemia, followed by cancer of the brain and kidney.

The children are recommended for camp attendance by one of the area’s participating hospitals, including Children’s Hospital, Kaiser Permanente, UCSD Medical Center and the Navy Hospital.

The camp, which operates through donations and is staffed by volunteers, has grown from 25 children when it started five years ago to this summer’s high of 52, said camp nurse Chris Cooney, known as “Band-Aid” to the campers.

“The kids all call her ‘Band-Aid’ because they associate her with being able to make them feel a lot better when things aren’t going so well,” said Martinez. “And because they often feel applying a Band-Aid to almost any wound will help heal it.”

Most of the children have been to the camp before. They look forward to the experience because it allows many to do things their parents might be hesitant about because of their illness, Cooney said.

One of those activities was a half-mile nature hike at Tecolote Canyon Natural Park.

Along the way, the children discovered fossils hidden earlier by Robert Crisman, a camp volunteer who planned the hike, and were able to see minerals, crawfish and creek animals in their natural environments.

Not All Participate

“Of course all of the children can’t participate in all of the activities,” Cooney said, “but camp personnel don’t limit their participation unless we think it is in their best interest.”

Children unable to hike that distance stayed behind to rest.

The week’s activities included arts and crafts, swimming and games, as well as the trip to the Humane Society and an animal presentation by San Diego Zoo employees. The 6- to 8-year-olds slept at the Girl Scout campsite in Balboa Park on Friday night to prepare for today’s breakfast and country fair for their parents and siblings.

Jennifer Caricato, 7, who has attended camp three times, said, “I like the camp because I can do pretty crafts by myself. I can even show my pretty things.”

According to Cooney, Jennifer is one of the many signs of hope for camp personnel. “Jennifer, like some of the other children, has responded well to her treatments (for a kidney tumor).”

But perhaps more inspiring, according to Cooney, is 8-year-old Luis Guerrero, who has a brain tumor.

“When Luis came to the camp three years ago, he only got around with the aide of a stroller,” Cooney said. “Last year he walked on occasion, and now he is getting around just like the other children.”

Guerrero, who was bursting with laughter throughout a presentation about animal care, summed up his camp experience as “plenty of fun.”