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BEYOND THE RAINBOW: Camp Hope celebrates 40 years of helping kids
Gaga Ball
‘Gagaball’ is one activity available to campers this week at Camp Hope for youth battling, or who have battled, cancer. The camp is held annually at Camp Aldrich near Claflin, and is celebrating its 40th year this year.

For four decades, Camp Hope has been helping make the difficult journeys for kids with cancer just a little bit easier.

This week marks the 40th year of the camp, which has been held annually since 1983, with the exception of 2020, during which the camp was not held, and 2021 in which the camp was held virtually, both as a result of COVID-19. The camp is for kids who are currently, or have in the past, battled cancer.

The camp takes place each year at Camp Aldrich near Claflin, except for 1983, the camp’s first year, when it was held in Salina, and two years at Barton Community College following fires at Camp Aldrich.

The late Donna Brown of McPherson and her husband, Clinton, began the camp after losing two children, Kyle and Melani, to cancer.

“They knew there was not a summer camp for kids that had a full medical staff to take care of children with cancer, so they started one,” said Barb Keltner, media representative for KyMel, Inc., the non-profit that now operates Camp Hope and a sister camp, Camp SIBSational, for siblings of children with cancer. 

Though Donna officially retired as camp chairperson in 2000, she remained active in the endeavor until her passing in Jan. 2021. The non-profit that now operates the camp bears the name of the two children she lost to cancer, and continues to carry on the camp’s mission.

“Our mission is to provide connecting experiences for families on the cancer journey with an ultimate goal of improving the health of children and adolescents with cancer,” Keltner said.

Through KyMel, Inc., the camp is completely volunteer operated, has no paid employees, and is completely free for the youth to attend.

Volunteers for the camp include a medical team, kitchen crew, house parents, activity coordinators, logistics staff, creative staff and more. 

Currently, the camp has a full medical team including pharmacists, mental health professionals, a doctor, nurses, and pediatric oncologists. Keltner said 20% of their volunteers are former campers who have returned to help as a result of their positive experiences with the camp.

The camp has grown significantly since its inception. After having 38 campers its first year, the camp has hosted as many as 99 campers, and averaged around 80. This year, because of health concerns, Camp Hope is hosting 40 campers from across Kansas and Missouri, as well as one from Oklahoma. Keltner said in the future, the camp hopes to expand to even more campers across the region.

“Our goal is to provide a safe, fun week where kids with cancer can come forget about their illness for a brief time,” Keltner said. “We truly are that special place beyond the rainbow for kids with cancer.” 

This year includes a carnival and party to celebrate the camp’s 40th anniversary. It also includes a long list of other activities: crafts, hayrides, swimming, gaga ball, a teen pool party evening, survivor relay games, a tea party for younger campers, shaving cream and water balloon fight, creating shaving cream mummies, kickball, lip sync battles, fireworks, kites, volleyball, talent show, trash-can band, a camp dance, and more. Also planned are bowling and miniature golf at Walnut Bowl, and a trip to Wetlands Waterpark in Great Bend.

Keltner said each year, Camp Hope tries to provide new activities. This year’s additions include a gaga ball pit and custom cornhole boards emblazoned with the Camp Hope logo.

The camp could not happen each year without the support of Barton County communities, Keltner said. “Great Bend (and Barton County) has been great at supporting Camp Hope for over 39 years. We are honored to call Great Bend/Claflin home.

“Campers have enjoyed activities in the community, including bowling, visiting the zoo, and having a blast at the Waterpark, for decades. We receive donations of supplies and food from community organizations as well. For 39 years, Barton Community College has been our partner, and we couldn’t have done Camp Hope without their constant support.”  

The cost to put on the camp each year averages $2,000 per camper per week. Because of that, Keltner said Camp Hope is always looking for donations, grants and volunteers. The biggest challenges Camp Hope faces each year is transporting campers from as far away as Kansas City and Wichita to camp, and securing kitchen staff.

Even as the camp has faced additional challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, Keltner said the unbreakable spirit remains with Camp Hope.

“As one of the first campers said in his poem that is now our camp theme song, ‘We shall prevail.’”

Camp Hope Face Paint
Face-painting is one activity available to campers this week at Camp Hope for youth battling, or who have battled, cancer. The camp is held annually at Camp Aldrich near Claflin, and is celebrating its 40th year this year. - PHOTO COURTESY OF KYMEL, INC.
Camper on slide
A Camp Hope camper emerges from a slide at Camp Aldrich. This year’s Camp Hope runs through June 25. - Courtesy photo KyMel, Inc.