A story of hope
Camp Hope was started in 1983 by Donna Brown, also known as “Ma Donna,” whose two children died from cancer. The camp (now sponsored by the American Cancer Society) was first held at Adda Walden Camp in Salina. The following year, camp was moved to Camp Aldrich located northeast of Great Bend, where it is still held today.
According to the ACS, the mission of Camp Hope is to provide a normal, active, and safe summer camp experience where children can celebrate life while living with and beyond their cancer diagnosis.
In 2012, a record 95 kids attended camp. Over the past 30 years, attendance has totaled more than 2,235 campers.
Camp Hope is accredited by the American Camp Association having undergone a 300-point standards review process. ACA collaborates with experts from the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Red Cross, and other youth service agencies to assure that current practices at the camp reflect the most up-to-date, research-based standards in camp operation.
Camp Hope is open to children ages 7 to 17 years who have or have had cancer.
A shift in policy
“Cancer doesn’t fight fair at any age,” said Stephanie Weiter, American Cancer Society regional vice president from Wichita. “But perhaps no cancer is more emotionally devastating than those that occur in children.”
That is what made the ACS’s decision to cease funding Camp Hope and the other youth camps across the nation difficult, she said. But, the society has decided shift funding towards research, fighting for state and federal anti-cancer policies and family support services.
Today, a child’s chance of dying from cancer is 53 percent less than it was in 1975, the ACS reports. Currently, the society is funding 48 grants nationwide totaling $26,753,350 for childhood cancer research. In addition, two “pay-if” grants totaling $1,440,000 demonstrate promising research, but the society does not currently have the funding secured to execute these grants at this time.
For 30 years, children with cancer have found a week’s refuge from their ravaging illnesses at a camp appropriately named Camp Hope.
For three decades, around 80 kids from all over Kansas and some from Missouri flocked to the rustic site nestled among the scenic, scrubby, gently rolling sand hills northwest of Great Bend each summer. They came to Barton Community College’s Camp Aldrich to swim, ride horses, fish, do crafts, make lasting friendships and, most importantly, forget for a spell their lives filled with needles, treatments and hospitals.
It was a chance for kids to be, well, regular kids.
But, just as plans are under way for the 31st Camp Hope June 16-22, news came that future camps could be in jeopardy. The American Cancer Society, which sponsors Camp Hope and 41 other similar youth camps nationwide, announced Tuesday that it will no longer fund the events after Dec. 31.
“This was a tough one,” said Stephanie Weiter, ACS regional vice president from Wichita of the painful decision. “But, we need to refocus our efforts.”
Although it is difficult to put a dollar figure on it due to all the volunteer efforts, Camp Hope is not cheap. Factoring in the of staff, insurance, background checks, marketing and other expenses, she estimated the cost at about $150,000.
The camp is free to campers and open to youngsters ages 7-17.
Around $4-5,000 comes in each year from private donors, organizations and memorials all over Kansas. Plus, there are several local and state entities that provide in-kind support.
Now, the cancer-fighting organization will channel more resources into research to find a cure for the disease for victims of all ages, Weiter said. “This is the 100th anniversary of the ACS. We want to make sure there is no cancer in the next 100 years.
“The society’s goal is to finish the fight and save even more lives from cancer,” Weiter said. “In light of a challenging economy that has put increased pressure on resources, funds are being reallocated to save more lives faster.”
“We don’t want kids to even need a camp down the road,” said Wichita-based Dana Kemp, ACS High Plains Division communications director. “This is not a knee-jerk reaction to the economy. There was much thought and deliberation put into it.”
The agency has spent nearly a year evaluating programs.
However, nobody wants Camp Hope to fold its tent, said Gail Moeder, a Great Bend resident who has served on the camp’s committee since the early days.
“The camp is extremely important to us,” Moeder said. “The committee is very committed to keeping a camp.”
How? “Our hope is we find someone to step in and take over,” Weiter said. “We don’t want to see the camp go away.”
ACS personnel spent Tuesday meeting with its Camp Hope partners, breaking the news. They sent e-mails to past campers and their families letting them know of the change.
“The Great Bend community has been so good to Camp Hope for so long,” Weiter said. “We really appreciate everyone who stepped up and helped.”
The college, Walnut Bowl, The Club at Stoneridge, The Knights of Columbus, the Optimist Club, the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, and Unified School District 428 were among the many groups that were involved.