Chicago’s Ritz rolls out red carpet for kids with cancer

Written By By Bill Zwecker Columnist Posted: 07/23/2014, 06:16am
Array Blaine Blanchard hangs out with campers at Camp Magical Moments in Idaho. The Chicago resident's time as a volunteer counselor in Idaho inspired him to launch a camp for children with cancer in Chicago. | Photo provided by Blaine Blanchard

A special camp is coming to Chicago in August — truly a first of its kind. Thanks to a dream realized by sports marketing executive Blaine Blanchard, nearly three dozen children battling serious cancer challenges will participate in the groundbreaking “Camp Kids Are Kids Chicago” program.

The unique aspect of the Chicago camp, scheduled to run Aug. 10-14, is that it is the first such camping experience for young cancer patients that is being staged in an urban environment.

Blanchard’s key partner in this new initiative is the Ritz Carlton Chicago in the Water Tower Place complex. The hotel will serve as home base for the camp, which Blanchard and the Ritz’s vice president and general manager, Tom Segesta, explained over a recent breakfast at the hotel.

The genesis of the idea came after Blanchard volunteered at Camp Magical Moments in Idaho, a cause supported by the wife of pro football coach Tom Walsh, then a business partner of Blanchard’s.

“After building a relationship with Coach Walsh, I decided to volunteer at the camp for 10 days in Idaho,” Blanchard said.

The experience of the three days of training and seven days working with the kids at the Idaho camp was “a life changer, a game changer for me,” Blanchard said. “To be around 28 kids battling or in remission for some really heavy stuff — leukemia, brain tumors and things like that — it can’t help but have an enormous impact on you.”

After returning home, Blanchard started thinking about how he could replicate a similar experience in Chicago.

That led the marketing pro to start a dialogue with experts in the world of cancer kids camps — to figure out how that could be done in Chicago.

The initial reaction was pretty negative. The lead counselor at Camp Magical Moments told Blanchard the idea would never fly, as all existing camps were in rural areas. Executives at the worldwide Children’s Oncology Camping Association International expressed similar opinions.

It had never been done in an urban setting, but that didn’t deter Blanchard from pushing ahead. Joined by Segesta, Blanchard pursued his dream and organized a Chicago board of fundraising-savvy executives and oncology experts for his new charity, now a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

Swift, strong support here

Working with the nine Chicago-area pediatric oncology hospitals, such as Lurie Children’s Hospital, Blanchard quickly learned there was a true demand for such a camp.

“From our first meeting with one of the major hospitals, we were basically told, ‘Your vision is our dream, because so many kids don’t have the opportunity to go to camp.’ They are too fragile and their moms and dads won’t allow them to go to northern Wisconsin or down to the Springfield [Illinois] area, or wherever the rural camps are located. The kids are just too fragile.”

When Blanchard approached Segesta to ask for the involvement of the Ritz Carlton, he had no idea how strong and immediate that support would be.

“I had thought we might get the hotel to agree to let us use some roll-away beds in a few rooms. . . . Tom immediately shook his head and said, ‘Come on! We can do better than that! We need bunk beds!’ . . . Right then, I knew we had a true partner in this,” said Blanchard.

Along with that, of the 13 founding members of the Camp Kids Are Kids Chicago board of directors, seven members — plus two additional advisers — represent more than 140 years experience with pediatric oncology camping experience.

After initially being skeptical, the Children’s Oncology Camping Association International, which runs 100 camps worldwide serving 20,000 kids, is onboard with the idea of the Chicago urban camp concept. The association also plans to duplicate the Chicago model in other markets, including New York, Los Angeles, London and Atlanta.

Volunteers, events galore

For the first camp this summer, Blanchard, Segesta and their team are looking to welcome 32 children, ages 8 to 16, recommended by the nine area hospitals they are working with.

There will be no charge to the kids, and all of the people working on the camp as counselors and other staff members are volunteers.

Bill Cartwright, former Bulls player and coach, has signed on to be one of the group’s special ambassadors to help raise funds for what already is shaping up to provide the children with a wonderful five-day experience.

“Metropolitan Limousine and others are helping us to ferry the kids around,” Blanchard said. “Opening day will be at Bo Jackson’s Dome, and he’ll be there to meet kids and spend time with them. Nike is going to build an obstacle course there. For the kids unable to do that, we’ll have arts and crafts set up.

“The Ritz will be our home base,” Blanchard said.

Segesta said the hotel is clearing out an entire floor for the kids rooms, “for the bunk beds. And we’ll have sleeping bags for them to sleep in, just like at camp. . . . There also will be a medical room on the floor, just in case that’s needed.”

The hotel’s large Pearson Room will be donated for use as the camp’s main “gathering room,” where certain meals will be served and arts and crafts and other camp programs will be staged, Segesta said.

Among various programs planned are a pool party and movie night at the Ritz, the use of the Evanston Golf Club (when it’s closed on a Monday), so the kids can use the pool there and participate in a scavenger hunt. There will be cookouts, campfires, skits, plus “camp songs and dances that we always associate with the camping experience,” Blanchard said.

On the Wednesday of the camp program, there will be a Chicago River cruise coordinated to the city’s fireworks display, plus a visit to the Chicago Children’s Museum.

“We want to make every meal an experience,” Segesta said. To that end, there will be guacamole-teaching classes at Mercadito and pizza tossing at Home Slice Pizza.

There will be a Spanish interpreter involved with the camp, as Blanchard stressed, “We don’t want any kid to feel isolated. . . . This is all about being totally inclusive.”

For Segesta, a heartfelt part of this experience for him and his wife, Robin, has been the fact “so many of our Ritz staff members have become so excited about these kids coming to our hotel for summer camp. Quite a few have offered to not only volunteer their time, but several have also offered to come do this on vacation days. That’s just a sense of how important this program is to us.”


Twitter: @billzwecker

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