It’s 1993, I am a pale six year old child who fervently loves everything Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, playing on his Nintendo game system, and recently fell in love with this crazy new movie about dinosaurs being brought back to life through their DNA. I was a tiny ball of energy, always laughing and giggling about something, even when being tormented by my older brother two years my senior. Well, at least on my best days I had that kind of energy. A fair amount of that time in my life was spent in and out of Children’s Medical Center of Dallas, you see, because just a year prior I was diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare malignant tumor involving striated muscle tissue. Yeah, that’s a weird sounding and extra long word, it took me until I was thirteen to even learn how to properly spell it. I was fondly known by the nursing staff as “rhabdo kid” because who wants to take the time to say seven syllable word? My time at the hospital was bittersweet in a lot of ways, because I was so young at the time that I had little comprehension of what was going on except that I knew I was sick and the nice doctors or nurses were going to make me better.
My treatment over it’s entirety required vast amounts of both radiation and chemotherapy, about three surgeries, and eventually a bone marrow transplant as a last ditch effort because the doctors needed to be as aggressive as possible since my cell counts were still bad. The hardest part about cancer treatment can be a psychological one, where you feel weak all of the time, continually nauseous from chemo, and generally grumpy. Seeing yourself or a loved one in that kind of physical and mental pain is hard to deal with, which is why I am thankful I was too young to completely understand what was going on. One thing that’s inevitable though, no matter what age you are, is that you will come to terms with mortality and your own possible death. So, imagine a tiny, bald, rather chubby (thank you steroids!) kid who will break into a fit of laughter at fart noises but also speak frankly about not being afraid of death. That was me, in a nutshell.
That doesn’t sound very fun, now does it? Especially for a child of only six years old. About ten years before in 1982, a man by the name of Mr. Bridewell (a fellow cancer patient himself) approached Children’s Medical Center about establishing a fund to provide a summer camp experience for children treated for cancer. After his passing, the Bridewell Foundation was established and the development of the camp began. The camp was aptly named Camp Esperanza, esperanza meaning “Hope” in Spanish. It became a week long camp that is held near the end of every summer. Originally established at Camp Sweeney in Gainesville, Texas, the camp later moved to Camp John Marc located in Meridian, Texas in 1992.
Fast forward ten years later back to ’93, my parents were approached by the staff at Children’s Medical Center about whether or not I would be interested in attending this camp. Now remember, this is a time in my life when my parents were constantly at my side before the term “helicopter parent” even existed. I am sure they, like any other parent would be, were apprehensive at the thought of allowing their child who has a serious illness to go away for a week with a group of strangers out into the woods somewhere. After some time, we determined that I should go, and I cannot tell you how my life has changed forever because of that choice.
Over the next ten years, I was able to attend a total of nine times, nine of the best weeks of my entire life to date. Camp Esperanza offers every sleep away camp experience you can imagine and so much more. They offer activities like horseback riding, a newly revamped ropes course, archery, boats, fishing, arts & crafts, pottery, sports & games, swimming, and all kinds of other activities that have become long standing traditions. The real draw of camp and what makes it so magical aren’t the activities though, it’s that Esperanza’s main mission and goal is to help these kids feel like themselves again and show them that there’s still fun to be had no matter the difficulties they’ll face through their treatment. As a child in those circumstances, it’s easy to feel like you are in a plastic bubble, too fragile to live like the other kids around you who are always running and jumping around without a care. To be around other kids their age and even older who are going through the same thing, someone to relate to, helps them feel much less isolated. Needless to say I fell in love with Esperanza and attended until I was fifteen years old, the age when campers “graduate” from camp.
Fast forward nearly fifteen years later, I have just returned to a wonderful team from my fifth year as a counselor at Esperanza. That week is easily one of the highlights of my year every time without fail. As a former camper, this place becomes a second home in so many ways. I feel safe and steeped in the knowledge that this is one place in the world where magic still exists. Whether it’s in the form of overcoming your fears or making friends that truly do last a lifetime, it’s a place to remind yourself of the good in the world. This year marked the highest amount of former campers as either Esperanza counselors or Camp John Marc staff, with a total of 25. There’s a reason that the number of former campers coming back as counselors continues to grow, the majority of us were inspired by our own counselors, some of whom are still there even after 20+ years of volunteering.
Every year is truly a gift to be able to meet and get to know the campers, from seeing them hit a bullseye at the archery range for the first time in their lives, to seeing the determination they show as they climb up the ropes course. We’re talking about the majority of kids who are currently going through chemotherapy while they’re at camp, but still finding the strength and confidence to achieve their goals, it’s truly inspirational and I am humbled to get to be a part of that. Aside from their achievements at camp, their personalities shine through in a manner that might not often be seen by the outside world as they settle in and begin to feel comfortable. Their humor can surprise you sometimes, such as a camper this year said “You know, I’m cool, I’m not sky-diving cool, but I’m cool.” It can be the little things that remind us why we’re here.
As I said goodbye to the kids this year, it was more of a see you later than an actual goodbye because camp is forever in our hearts no matter where we go or how old we get.