The family reunion Saturday afternoon wasn’t about shared genealogy — it was about a shared experience. The Camp Hope family consists of hundreds of children and volunteers spanning 35 years.
During the celebration, members learned about the Donna Brown Legacy Fund, created so this camp for children who have (or have had) cancer can continue for another 35 years and beyond. But the woman who helped start Camp Hope all those years ago said perhaps someday childhood cancer can become a thing of the past.
“I would like to think we won’t need this camp 35 years from now,” said Donna Brown.
“I can’t begin to tell you how thrilled I am to be here today and see all of you,” Brown told the reunion guests at Barton Community College’s Camp Aldrich Conference Center. The conference center has been the site for Camp Hope for most of its 35 years.
“I just never dreamed when we started Camp Hope how it would evolve and grow better every year.” The credit for that success goes to the campers and volunteers, she said.
“None of us would be here if it wasn’t for ‘Ma Donna’ Brown,” said Dr. Bryan Wohlwend, president of the nonprofit Camp Hope Heartland.
Nowadays, there are “Camp Hopes” across America, but in 1983 there was only one. Kevin W. Brown tells the story in his new book, “Camp Hope: The ‘Ma Donna’ Years 1983-2000.” Donna and Clinton Brown, the author’s parents, lost their 10-year-old son Kyle to a brain tumor, and nine years later their 15-year-old daughter Melani died of leukemia.
Donna wanted to honor the memory of her children by providing other children with cancer an experience they might not otherwise have.
After a year of working to make it happen, Donna Brown oversaw the first Camp Hope, based at Camp Adda Walden near Salina. It was the first camp of its kind in the United States. There were 38 campers and 75 volunteers, including trained medical staff.
The free camp was filled with adventures, friends and caring volunteers. The fellow campers understood the shared experience of their illness, but at camp they could concentrate on enjoying themselves.
Camp Hope moved to Camp Aldrich in 1984 and has been there ever since, except for the years when the Dining Hall was being rebuilt after a fire in 2014. During that period campers stayed in student housing on the Barton Community College campus.
The book includes the camp’s history and traditions, including some songs and poems. There are sample lyrics of “Dear Abby,” a camp song rewritten with personal messages and sung every year:
Dear Abby, Dear Abby, we have a request
Nurse Kayla, Nurse Kayla, she is the best!
Nurse Judy is here and has a surprise!
When Kayla opens the box there will be tears in her eyes!
Dear Abby, Dear Abby, we have one complaint!
Miles snores in his sleep and keeps us up late.
It drags on forever and we’re desperate for sleep.
We have sweet dreams that we’d sure like to keep.
Kevin Brown said proceeds from his book will go to the Camp Hope Heartland. There was so much information that he couldn’t fit it all into one book.
“There’s so much going on every year,” he said. This book covers the years his mother was camp chairman. He hopes to have a second volume, covering 2001 to 2017, finished by next year.
Over the years, the campers and volunteers have indeed become “family.” Becky Thompson, Topeka, attended her first camp when she was 9 years old. At Saturday’s reunion, she said she returns year after year, now as an adult volunteer helping with activities.
“I love this place,” Thompson said. “This is my heaven on earth.”