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Chance to have fun: A camp for cancer kids and families

TYLER HEMP of Bemidji holds a 24-inch walleye he caught Tuesday afternoon while fishing at Kamp KACE.1 / 3
Minnesota Wild's Matt Cullen talks and fishes with kids attending Kamp KACE at the YMCA Camp on Big Cormorant Lake Tuesday afternoon. Cullen donates a substantial amount of money to the camp through his foundation "Cully's Kids."2 / 3
Kamp KACE kids play on a floating trampoline during Tuesday afternoon's camp session.3 / 3

At Kamp KACE (that's pronounced like Casey), you can find kids of all ages running, jumping, swimming, fishing and singing.

At first glance, you'd swear it was like any other summer camp.

"My favorite part is fishing," said 4-year old Evan, "I already got a big one."

It's complete with big fish stories.

A closer look, however, shows something deeper. Something sadder. Something happier. Something stronger.

That's because all the kids at Kamp KASE are either cancer survivors, cancer fighters or the siblings of those who are.

KACE stands for Kids Against Cancer Everywhere.

"I was diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma when I was 5," said camper and Hawley native Brad Hanson, who is now 16. "I remember my first year at camp -- I was so sick; throwing up all the time and leaving every day for chemo."

Brad also remembers being bald and trying to hide it at first.

"And now I see all the new kids coming in here and they have the same exact fears I did - there's a little kid in my cabin right now going through that, and I just tell him it's OK ... we've all been through it."

Brad wasn't alone as a little fighter, and he's not alone in his new role of supporter.

His 22-year-old sister, Abby, and 19-year-old brother, Mike, have also been coming to Kamp KACE every year since their little brother got sick. (Siblings are always welcome at the camp as well, because of all they inevitably go through during their brother or sister's cancer struggles.)

Now, Abby and Mike are both camp counselors.

"We're like a big family here," said Abby, "even though we only see each other once a year at camp, we're still always a family."

If this is a family, their annual reunion is a big one this year.

This is not only the first year they're holding the camp at Big Cormorant's YMCA camp (It's traditionally been at Trowbridge), but it is Kamp KACE's 25th year in existence.

"I can't believe it's been that long," said the camp's founder, Dr. Janet Tillisch, who also serves as a pediatrician and oncology specialist at Innovis Health in Fargo.

Tillisch created Kamp KACE as a place where kids with cancer can go to just have fun and connect with others who identify with each other's pain, while being in an environment that is conducive to their condition.

"We have two doctors, some nurses and lots of other medical staff here," Tillisch said, "so if they're still needing chemo and radiation, we take them in and bring them back out again -- I think the kids have a lot of late night talks about things like that."

Late night talks and all day activities keep these kids very busy all week.

Campers are taking in horseback riding, the zip line, archery, water activities, arts and crafts, movies and go-carts.

"I don't know if the kids are that tired at the end of the week, but the staff is," laughed Camp Director Kim Belgarde.

There are 94 campers this year and 50 staff, all of whom are volunteers that stay on-site for the entire six days.

"And I only have two new ones this year," Belgarde said, "the rest come back every year. It's something that once you do it, it gets into your heart and soul."

Camp councilors aren't the only ones who make Kamp KACE possible.

Belgarde says donations seem to come in from everywhere, with a lion's share coming from ... local Lions.

"The Lions Clubs are always doing something here, whether it's paying for activities or taking the kids fishing ... I can't say enough about them," Belgarde said.

The Vergas Lions Club is a longtime supporter, joined this year by the Cormorant Lions Club.

Fundraisers and donations throughout the year are what fund the camp, with families only having to pay $35 per family.

"And if they're not able to pay that, we'll waive it," said Belgarde.

And as this year's theme is "Superheroes," the kids were able to hang out with one of their real-life heroes, NHL player Matt Cullen.

The Minnesota Wild star not only kicks in a substantial amount of money to the camp through is foundation for "Cully's Kids," but he and his wife, Bridget, make it a point to visit the camp every year.

Tuesday, the couple and one of their young sons joined in on the Kamp KACE fun, as they hopped on a pontoon full of little boys and threw some poles in the water.

"Who's caught the biggest fish so far?" Cullen asked the boys, as about half of them raised their hands and all started talking excitedly at once.

The Cullens already know many of the kids by name from past years or past events they're involved with.

"This is what it's all about," Cullen said, "I love coming out here and getting to know the kids and watching them grow up and be a part of their lives."

Cullen has literally seen many of them grow up, too, as he and his wife have been involved with Kamp KACE for about seven years.

"These kids are just so amazing. They go through so much more than other kids their age, and it's so fun to see them in this setting laughing and having a good time."

Two of those kids having a good time are 10-year-olds Sean Crementich of Devils Lake and Jonathan Stalberger of Moorhead and Detroit Lakes.

"We're best buds," Sean said, as Jonathan adds, "Yeah, and we've been in the same cabin together since we started coming here."

That was five years ago, when they were just little.

The boys were both going through cancer treatments at the same time - Sean with leukemia and Jonathan with cancer.

"It was easy to talk about it with each other, but now we just mostly play and talk about other stuff," Jonathan said smiling, "like girls."

The "other stuff" is what camp councilors say really gives the sick kids hope.

"It's so good for the ones going through treatment to see the survivors and to see how well they're doing," said Tillisch, "it really sort of lifts them up."

The camp wraps up Friday.

To find out more on Kamp KACE or to donate to the cause, log on to