Pediatric cancer patients may never get a chance to go to traditional summer camps. That’s why former childhood cancer survivor and former camper Oguna Taylor has volunteered with our children’s Camps Program for the last 16 years.
The Camps Program provides opportunities for our pediatric patients to get away from the hospital and enjoy time in the outdoors with other young people. It includes two week-long, sleep-away camps: Camp Star Trails for ages 6-12 and Camp A.O.K. for ages 13-18. The camps are offered at no cost to MD Anderson pediatric patients and their siblings.
“I want to find a way to help these kids feel safe and normal again,” Taylor says. “At camp, they’re going through a common battle to live another day and see the future.”
“It made me who I am today”
Spending time with the children gives Taylor a chance to reconnect with our mission and her roots in pediatric nursing. A clinical information specialist on our OneConnect team, she started her career at MD Anderson as a nurse, and in 2001 she began volunteering at Camp A.O.K. as a camp nurse. In 2004, she transferred to a counselor position.
“I’ve been to camp as a patient going through chemo, and I refused to take off my wig. I was closed off to socializing with the other kids. But being part of an experience like this changed me. It brought me out of my shell and made me who I am today,” Taylor explains.
Where it’s good to feel normal and OK to be emotional
“I made lifelong friends going to camp and being with others in similar situations,” Taylor says. “'Well friends’ have empathy, but they don’t truly understand. At camp, it’s OK to be emotional. To cry. To feel sad about what you’re going through. But you have to push forward, keep fighting and keep the light inside ignited.”
“Week-long sleep-away camps for patients and their siblings offer a break from ‘being sick’ to let them be normal kids, without interrupting their treatments,” says Lauren Shinn, who manages special patient programing for our Children’s Cancer Hospital.
She focuses on developing programs that aren’t just fun but also provide therapeutic value to the children. Shinn looks for activities that help them better understand their diagnosis and connect with their peers.
A safe space to participate in camp activities
Even when they’re not under active treatment, our pediatric patients may have long-term side effects that regular summer camps aren’t equipped to handle. Shinn makes sure there are activities for everyone, no matter what their physical capabilities. She believes it’s valuable for these children to have a chance to feel like cancer hasn’t taken away all their normal childhood experiences.
The kids can take part in many traditional camp activities, such as archery, arts and crafts, canoeing, cooking class, fishing, horseback riding, ropes challenge course, sports, swimming and a camp prom.
A full on-site medical clinic makes camp a safe retreat. It’s staffed by MD Anderson employees and includes a physician, physician’s assistant, nurse practitioner, in- and outpatient nurses, child life specialists and a psychology team. This clinic allows patients in active treatment to attend camp while still receiving medications, infusions and lab work throughout the week, if necessary.
“Treatment puts a pause on life. The medical clinic on site provides a way for the kids to be kids outside the hospital walls,” Shinn says.
A longer version of this story originally appeared in Messenger, MD Anderson’s bimonthly employee publication.