Mid-August, nearly. Back-to-school sales starting and summer camps ending. Friday is the last day of Camp Kids Are Kids Chicago.
As at camps everywhere, the last day of Camp Kids Are Kids Chicago will have songs and hugs and tears.
Though this is different than most summer camps, for two reasons.
First, all 30 campers attending this week either have or had cancer.
“Most of them, fortunately, are on the good side of their therapy,” said Dr. Charles Hemenway, a pediatric oncologist at Loyola University Medical Center, volunteering as the camp doctor. “The worst is behind them.”
The worst is certainly behind camper Joe Moylan, attending for a second time, doing much better this year than last.
“I was bald,” said the 14-year-old. “I was going through really hard times, going through treatment. It was amazing to do things like any kid could do.”
Joe joined other campers making fresh pasta under the eye of a trained chef, a reminder of the second unusual aspect of this camp — it is not held in the Michigan woods, but in the heart of the Chicago Loop, at the Palmer House Hilton.
The camp was founded in 2014 by Chicago sports marketing executive Blaine Blanchard, who had volunteered at an outdoor oncology camp. He had the idea to create a camp in the city for children too sick to risk the great outdoors, for parents too worried to let their children camp hours away from a hospital.
The campers, ages 7 to 17, arrived Sunday, one clutching a pink teddy bear, another carrying oxygen. Some are undergoing chemotherapy, others are in remission. But all benefit from being with those who’ve shared their experiences.
“No question,” said Dr. Hemenway. “For some kids, they are traumatized. That’s why being together with other kids with similar experiences really goes a long way. I don’t know how much they talk about when the lights go out and they’re in their bunks. But looking at each other, they can tell they’ve been through things, whether it’s crutches, or a wheelchair or no hair.”
Anyone who has run programs for kids knows the organizational challenge — planning a talent show, a carnival, projects. Layer over that the complex medical logistics for sick kids. A boisterous crew of nurses from Loyola set up a clinic, calling it “Customs,” where daily medications could be cast as travel inoculations.
“All the kids have their medications here,” said Marilyn Kasal, the camp’s medical director and a nurse at Loyola, adding they plan all year for the camp.
Joining them were volunteers from the hotel staff and several dozen hotel guests, business people passing through the city invited to help out.
“There were six of us staying at the Palmer House,” said Frank Gagliardi, director of field operations at Siemens Building Technologies in Cleveland. “We got the invite, and I forwarded it to the team and said, ‘Hey, we have this opportunity. Is anyone interested?’ In two hours I heard back. It was unanimous: ‘Let’s do it.'”
They manned booths at the European Carnival.
“It was incredible,” said Gagliardi. “The kids had a blast. We had just as much fun. You are on the road, doing your corporate thing. We played with kids for two and a half hours. It was refreshing. We’re going to try to plan another meeting around it next year, hoping to do it again.”
Andres Diaz pushed Kei’Shaun Hardaway in his wheelchair. The boys, both 13, deemed the camp “fun” and “really fun,” respectively, and agreed the most fun was when their double deck bus got stuck between two cars.
Anything they wished other people understood about cancer?
“It’s not a joke,” said Diaz.
Do people joke about it?
“Some people,” he said.
Mackenzie Lim turned 18, so now she is a counselor-in-training, dealing with the ambivalence typical of that transitional state, being sometimes in charge of campers who last year were her peers.
“Camp is still my favorite week of the year,” said Lim, who will study pre-med at Northwestern this fall.
Though having responsibility does change things. “A lot more busy, a little more stressful,” she said. “I really enjoy it. Definitely different. There are girls in the older girls cabin a year younger than me.”
She was 13 when she contracted leukemia. What is leukemia like?
“It just stinks,” she said. “Camp makes it stink a lot less.”