Getting away from it: This camp lets kids with cancer have fun
When an outsider walks into the middle of Kamp KACE, a one-week event held every June at YMCA Camp Cormorant, at first glance it looks like a typical summer camp, with kids swimming and kayaking, playing basketball and riding horses, doing crafts or enjoying an afternoon snack in the dining hall.
And in a way, it is just what it appears to be: a summer camp for kids in grades K-12. But after talking to some of the kids, counselors and volunteers who congregate there each year, it quickly becomes apparent that this camp is about more than fun in the sun.
First, there’s the name: The “KACE” (pronounced “kay-see”) in Kamp KACE stands for “Kids Against Cancer Everywhere,” and as that name implies, this camp is a haven for kids who either have survived, or are living with the dreaded “C” word, as well as their siblings.
Then, there are the tight-knit friendships that have formed — friendships that keep the kids coming back year after year, whether they are in remission, or not.
“We have kids coming out here even when they’re dying… they just don’t want to miss it,” said Kamp KACE board member Janeen Kobrinsky, who also happens to be the wife of Dr. Nathan Kobrinsky, a pediatric oncologist at Sanford Health’s Roger Maris Cancer Center.
Though he himself is not a Kamp KACE board member, Dr. Kobrinsky — whom the kids refer to affectionately as “Dr. K” — is a regular volunteer at the camp.
“I’ve been coming here since 1991,” he said.
“The kids really have a good time here, they bond.”
“The friendships that are made here are quite remarkable,” Janeen said. “They can talk about things here that they just can’t anywhere else — or not talk, if they choose.”
Because of that, the bonds they form are much tighter than those of casual friendship, she added.
Kamp KACE counselor Jerome Peterson agreed, noting that the staff and kids at the camp have become a second family for him.
“I’ve been coming here for 14 years — I started as a camper, and when I was old enough, I became a counselor,” he said.
In fact, he even convinced his wife Sarah to volunteer at the camp after they got married.
“She’s been coming here for three years now,” he said.
Peterson, who is originally from Bagley but now lives in Minneapolis, was diagnosed with leukemia in 1998, when he was just 11 years old. And despite the fact that he’s been cancer-free for 15 years, the friendships he’s formed at the camp keep him coming back.
“I’ve been here for 14 of the last 15 years of being cancer free — I only missed last year,” he said.
“Every year you come back, it feels like you never left. It is a family here. There are memories… you can’t leave. It’s always with you.”
Sixteen-year-old Jacob Roble of Frazee, who has been coming to Kamp KACE for the past 11 years — since he was five years old — said he plans to eventually follow in Peterson’s footsteps and become a counselor at the camp.
“I had leukemia when I was three, and then had a recurrence when I was in fourth grade,” he said.
“One of the nurses told my mom and me about this camp when I was in the hospital. I’ve been coming ever since.
“It’s just loads of fun,” Roble added. “Hanging out with my friends, doing a bunch of different activities with them.”
His younger brother Ryan has been coming with him to the camp every year as well — something that’s not uncommon, as the camp is open not only to cancer survivors and those living with the disease, but their siblings as well.
“It’s important for them to come too,” said Dr. Kobrinsky — and not just because it gives their parents a complete respite from their caregiving duties.
“It’s important for the siblings to meet other siblings,” his wife Janeen added. “They go through a lot too.”
When one child is diagnosed with cancer, the parents’ focus, of necessity, often zeroes in on that child —and even though their brothers and sisters may understand and even share that concern, it can often leave them feeling neglected and ignored, she explained.
“There can be some resentment because of that,” she added. “Here, they can talk about that openly.”
That goes for the kids living with cancer as well, Janeen said.
“They don’t want to be labeled as ‘that kid with cancer,’” she added. “Out here, it doesn’t matter.”
Because so many of the kids have scars — some visible, some not — from what they have endured, acceptance comes naturally.
As a result of that acceptance, “There’s often some serious conversations that happen here… conversations that wouldn’t happen anywhere else.”
But ultimately, what Kamp KACE provides is a respite from the cares and concerns of everyday life.
“Most of the people out here haven’t been very lucky, and they need a chance to have fun — to just get out and enjoy themselves for one week a summer,” said Miranda Cagle, a Moorhead resident who has been coming to the camp for seven years.
In fact, Cagle first began coming to Kamp KACE when it was located outside Vergas, at the Trowbridge site. The event was relocated to Camp Cormorant in 2011, she said.
And though she doesn’t really remember having cancer — she was diagnosed with leukemia when she was three, and has been cancer-free for as long as she can remember — the 15-year-old does remember the stories of what it was like.
She feels a strong affection for the other kids at the camp, stating, “the younger kids think of me like a sister.”
She also hangs out a lot with Roble, and noted with a little smile, “He was my first slow dance.”
Yes, there is a camp dance every summer, held on the last night before they go home. This year’s dance had a Disney theme, and the volunteers were in the midst of preparing for it on Thursday afternoon, setting up the balloons and a lighted red carpet.
“They’ll all arrive by stagecoach and walk the red carpet to the dance hall,” explained Janeen Kobrinsky. “This Disney theme has been fun — there are a lot of activities (that can be organized) around that.”
One of the fun things about the dance, she added, is the absence of the usual age barriers: “You might see a 16-year-old dancing with a 6-year-old.”
Another thing that sets this camp apart is the fact that it’s free for the campers — and they get to enjoy a lot of activities other campers might not. For instance, this past Monday, all of the 114 campers enjoyed a trip to the water park in Thief River Falls, courtesy of the local Lions Club.
“Domino’s (the one in Plummer, Minn.) provided 60 pizzas for the kids on the trip home,” Kobrinsky said.
“The Lions also provided fishing for us on Tuesday,” she continued. “Many fishermen came with their boats and took the kids fishing, and they also cleaned the fish and came back and fried them for us the next day.”“People are always donating things to us,” Janeen Kobrinsky said.
“I just love how we get spoiled all the time,” Cagle said.
“The Lions have been very big supporters for us,” said Dr. Kobrinsky, noting that several area clubs provide supplies and volunteer to bring various activities to the kids as well.
As a result of these generous donations, the camp is offered free of charge to its participants.
“We’ve had lots of corporate and private sponsors over the years,” Kobrinsky added, noting that another big supporter has been Cully’s Kids, the foundation started by Matt Cullen, the former Moorhead High School hockey standout who is now a center with the Nashville Predators in the National Hockey League (see related sidebar).
“We get a great deal of support from Cully’s Kids, and from the area,” Janeen Kobrinsky added, including not only the various sponsors, but also the 60 or so people who volunteer their time at the camp — including several oncology nurses from Sanford Health, who help make sure the kids remain healthy during their stay, and even bring them into Fargo-Moorhead for treatment when they need it.
Still, the emphasis is always on fun.
“I don’t do much doctoring here,” said Dr. Kobrinsky. “I just have fun and play with the kids.”
“They love seeing him at camp,” his wife added, noting that one of their favorite pastimes is throwing “Dr. K” into the lake — a tradition that continued on Thursday.
In addition to all the water activities, there’s also plenty of horseback riding, crafts, basketball and more. And of course, there’s the food.
“The cook makes fresh cookies and desserts for us every day,” Janeen said. “We eat pretty well.”
“They have great food here,” Cagle agreed.
For more information about Kamp KACE, please visit the website at www.kampkace.org, or call 701-277-8990.
Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.