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High Life / A WEEKLY FORUM FOR HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS : Teen-Ager Gets Lessons in Life : Volunteerism: A Los Alamitos High School freshman gets invaluable experience working with nonprofit group that helps children and families affected by cancer.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On a recent Saturday in the VIP lounge at Knott’s Berry Farm, some very important guests greeted the arrival of one of their heroes with a roar.

“Snoopy!”

The subsequent chanting of the precocious pup’s name reverberated throughout the room, where in one corner, busily entertaining one of the guests, sat Los Alamitos High School freshman Megan Wallach.

The VIPs visiting Knott’s on this day were children and families affected by cancer and members of the Orange County Foundation for Oncology Children and Families.

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Wallach, who is a teen recruit for the nonprofit organization, said her participation has been an invaluable learning experience.

“A lot of these kids are dying or are in remission, and one of the best things about (my work) is seeing them so happy,” she said. “A lot of them have hospital bands around their arms and tubes through their chests. They’re just really happy, for being so sick.”

The foundation holds summer camps in the San Bernardino Mountains for cancer patients and their families. It also plans such get-togethers as holiday parties, picnics and special days at amusement parks and the like.

Sometimes, it can be difficult to discern which of the children visiting Knott’s that day has cancer. As parent Yolanda Ortiz said, “if a child or someone in the family has cancer, then the whole family has cancer.”

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But sometimes, it was painfully apparent which ones were afflicted. One 5-year-old, who as a result of massive doses of chemotherapy was left bald and whose growth was stunted, was not allowed to go on certain rides because of her size.

“I don’t mind,” she said with a sigh. “I didn’t want to go on it anyway.”

“You hate to see it happen, but you accept it and go on,” said Brenda Hohnstein, 24 and the foundation’s staff director. “They need medical help, but they also need social help to make them happy, to make them want to fight harder. They have to fight at such a young age.”

The foundation was started in 1982 by Yorba Linda resident Ron Van Winkle after his son Pat--who currently attends UC Riverside--was found to have cancer.

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“Van Winkle saw people going to camp, and he said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if kids could go to a camp with other kids who were going through the same thing and be able to talk about it if they wanted to, or not even mention it and still feel accepted?’ ” Hohnstein said.

Hohnstein has participated in the foundation’s camps since 1983, when she was a student at Esperanza High School. The first camp was attended by approximately 40 patients and family members; last summer’s camp attracted 220 participants.

Wallach, the teen recruit, worked at two camps this summer and has attended various get-togethers. In her job, she is able to interact with the kids while not having the responsibilities of a counselor.

Her camp work entailed washing dishes and other menial tasks, but she worked in shifts with other recruits and stayed in the cabins with the children as part of her training.

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"(Recruits) are being taught and getting firsthand experience,” Hohnstein said. “They really see how it’s run.”

Zoltan Tonbol, a counselor, has high praise for the recruits: “They do most of the work. They’re like the privates of the place. Most of them get picked on, but they’re really great.”

While many may find it depressing to work around illness and children in so much pain, Wallach doesn’t see it that way.

“Everybody always asks me if it’s depressing and they always talk about how great it is that I do this,” she said. “What you get back is immeasurable. It’s wonderful to be able to see these kids like this. If these kids went to a regular camp, they would be teased. But going to (the foundation camp), they’ve all been through the same thing.”

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The bond that Wallach has formed with her young friends has taught her important lessons about life.

“After camp, I thought, ‘How could I complain anymore that I don’t have a boyfriend?’ Sometimes I’m upset about my hair because it won’t curl right. It makes you realize: These kids don’t have any hair. When they’re sitting there, playing with your hair and saying, ‘Oh, I wish I had hair like that!’ It’s like, geez, I don’t know what I would do.”

To make a donation to the foundation or to learn more about it, write: OCFOCF, P.O. Box 6023, Orange, Calif., 92613-6023.

Trisha Ginsburg is a junior at Los Alamitos High School, where she is executive editor of the Crusader, the student newspaper, and an active member of many campus clubs.

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