Back in May I wrote a story about how Camp Ronald McDonald for Good Times opened a brand new dining hall for its campers, with the help of a $1 million donation from the Kings Care Foundation.
Camp Ronald McDonald for Good Times – known as “Camp” – is one of the largest recreational camping programs for children with cancer and their families. A program of the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Southern California, Camp serves more than 1,500 people each year and is medically supervised by over 350 volunteer doctors, nurses, psychologists, specially-trained counselors, and activity specialists. Camp is entirely free for all participants.
As a result of the Kings generous donation, the Camp organizers invited everyone on the Kings staff to come for a tour of the property and have lunch with the campers in the new dining hall. After writing the story in May, my interest and curiosity about Camp was piqued, and a few weeks ago, the first group of Kings staffers and I embarked on our day trip (the second group gets their turn this week).
I never went to any kind of camp as a kid. No sports camp, no summer camp, and no camping in a tent, cabin, or teepee. As a matter of fact, forget being a kid, that fact still held true as I boarded our mini bus for the morning drive to Mountain Center with eight other colleagues.
We watched ‘Pitch Perfect’ on the 2.5-hour drive, which perhaps was ideal considering we were told to prepare to be called out by the campers and asked to sing a song during lunch hour.
This may have made a few of us uncomfortable, myself included. I never liked being called out for anything in front of my peers (is there anyone who does?), and the thought of it brought me back to my middle school Algebra class with Mr. Barker. Keep in mind that I’m a writer and you do the math.
When we arrived we were greeted by a very kind, talkative gentleman named Brian, who, after much prodding by yours truly, finally identified himself as the Camp’s associate executive director. Brian led us on our tour, which was extremely appropriate, as Brian knew everyone and everyone knew Brian. It was evident that he had a much more hands-on role than his title might suggest.
Although they do offer camps where parents can attend with their kids, while we were there, the 140 campers were all children with cancer and their siblings, ranging in age from nine to 18 years old.
It was a beautiful day to be outside surrounded by nature. We were shown the cabins, the swimming pool, the outdoor theater and the group fitness room. Everywhere we went, kids would turn around and wave at us. We saw the outdoor climbing structure, that’s designed so that every single person who attends camp can reach the top, no matter how many legs or wheels they have to work with. We ran into a group of campers who enthusiastically showed us photos of the horses they had just ridden. We toured the medical office where the volunteer doctor and nurse, the keepers of each camper’s medications, were all too happy to be bored and playing cards. We walked around the fishing pond, which also doubles as the property’s water supply in case of a fire.
At the archery area, the group of girls that were there were competing with their counselors – the losers had to pick something from the costume shed to wear to lunch. They managed to convince two of our staffers, Amanda and Aaron, to join in on their competition. I have to give those two credit – considering they were unsure which side of the bow was the front and which was the back, they got nearly every arrow on target, and turned every single camper into a cheering fan who could rival any at STAPLES Center. Much to the hilarious displeasure of the all-female camp group, Aaron ended up beating Amanda, who agreed to wear a costume at lunch.
Bailey, our Ice Crew and Chariot Staff were also guests for the day and offered the campers street hockey as one of their activity rotations. At the conclusion of our tour, we headed towards the dining hall for lunch, and the campers were all outside awaiting our arrival. As we drew near, the campers, all lined up by cabin, began a “Kings” chant, and I felt each of our faux celebrity statuses skyrocket. Amanda’s archery fans saw her and screamed her name.
The next few minutes happened at light speed, but they were minutes that I will never forget.
There were almost exactly enough Kings staffers to assign one of us to each cabin’s lunch table, and we were told that we were going to be auctioned off. I can only imagine the look on my face upon hearing the word ‘auction.’
We were lined up, side by side, and the auctioneer asked each of our names before yelling it to the campers. The cabins would ‘bid’ on us by cheering. I was mortified at this process. I was never among the first to be picked for teams during PE (I know, can you believe it?), and I didn’t feel good about my chances here.
I looked over at my colleague, Janelle, who was next to me. “This is my worst nightmare,” she said with a scared look on her face that reflected what I was feeling.
I didn’t have much time to feel sorry for myself, as I was one of the first to be auctioned. When it was my turn I expected to hear crickets, but instead I heard screams from off to my right.
“There,” Janelle yelled, and pushed me off.
Sure enough, I was walking toward a group of nine-year-old girls, who were screaming for me at the tops of their lungs. I decided they may very well have reached the decibel of crickets. I didn’t know how to react, so I held my arms out and ran to them. All at once, they rushed to me and swallowed me into a big group hug, and then one by one asked if they could take a photo with me using their own disposable cameras.
I was overcome with shock, relief, gratitude and love, for these nine girls who I’d never met before, who didn’t know who I was, what I did, or probably even what my name was. But they were so happy to have me.
The girls from Cabin 2 brought me to their lunch table and a pretty girl named Kaylee asked me to sit next to her. The girls took turns telling me about the rules – no elbows on the table, and napkins were to always be in our laps while eating – anyone caught would be asked to stand up and sing in front of everyone. I made sure I followed the rules carefully. Kaylee told me that nobody in their cabin had ever had to sing before in the previous two days. I was with the right company.
Lunch was pizza, salad and frozen fruit bars, and the flatware was reminiscent of elementary school. Every once in a while we were entertained with someone having to sing for breaking a rule. Amanda emerged in a Superman costume, and Bailey was challenged to a dance-off.
I learned that Shannon, one of the three counselors from Cabin 2 became a counselor after attending Camp as a camper when she was a kid. She volunteers at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles once a month and has been to Kings games using tickets that CHLA acquired through their partnership with the Kings.
I didn’t have to stand up and sing, thanks to the watchful eyes of Kaylee, Princess, Cookie, Maya, Lucia, Kathy, Danicka, Mayra and Liora, and being on the other side of the room, facing the wrong direction I accidentally missed the muscle-flexing exhibition given by my colleagues.
The entire time we were there I didn’t see one sour face, one frown, or one kid not wanting to participate, and was only reminded of the real reason for Camp during lunch when a volunteer walked around with a tray of pills, looking for all the kids that required medication.
Part of the goal of camp is to provide a safe place for kids with cancer to escape and feel a sense of normalcy and belonging that isn’t always easy to come by given their medical complications. It’s a place where siblings of cancer-stricken children can find others who face the same challenges they do. Camp seeks to offer hope, courage, enthusiasm and joy while promoting healing.
I find this all intriguing, however, as my day at Camp showed me that the kids there, who have every reason to be depressed and angry and bitter, have already embraced ideals like acceptance and love – so much so that they can teach their group of 15 adult visitors about what can be accomplished if we just set our differences and our struggles aside.
That is definitely worth a million bucks.
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