Camp celebrates 20 years of helping sick kids have fun

Camp celebrates 20 years of helping sick kids have fun

Chilling out

Hundreds of small miracles took place at the Kaplen JCC in Tenafly during the last week of August.

Every moment that the 125 children attending Camp Dream Street-The Pearl Seiden Summer Program for Children with Cancer and Other Blood Disorders had fun and were “just kids” was one of those miracles. Every day that they could attend camp like any other children and participate in sports, nature walks, swimming, arts and crafts, baking, weaving, tae kwon do, and other activities meant that they were forgetting about the diseases that dominate their lives the rest of the year.

“This is where they forget they’re sick and just act like kids again,” says Pearl Seiden, the former occupational therapist and nurse who founded the week-long camp, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary. Attendees include siblings of the sick children as well, since those kids often feel neglected in the whirlwind of attention focused on an ill brother or sister. Many of the siblings are accustomed to being caretakers and aren’t used to playing or relaxing.

“A respite for everyone”

Seiden cited the case of a little girl who got off the bus one year with her brother and announced, “This is my brother and he has cancer. I’m here to take care of him.” The counselors realized that they had to help her let go of that role, at least for the week. “Cancer affects everyone in the family,” says Seiden. “This is a respite for everyone – the parents, the siblings, and the sick kids. It’s an equalizing time. They all have fun here, sick or well.”

Seiden, who serves on the board of the Kaplen JCC and chairs of its capital campaign, had lost a dear friend to cancer the year before she began Camp Dream Street in 1989. “It came to my attention that there were kids out there who couldn’t attend camp because of cancer,” she recalled. “Treatments were different 20 years ago; the side effects were much worse. Parents were not so willing to let kids out for something like this. Today the campers are much higher functioning.”

From the 25 children who attended the first year to this year’s total of 125, Camp Dream Street has grown steadily. Children ages 4 to 14 are referred by Hackensack University Medical Center’s Tomorrows Children Institute; Columbia-Presbyterian Babies and Children’s Hospital; Memorial Sloan-Kettering; and Westchester Medical Center at Vallhalla, N.Y. Doctors or nurses and social workers or child-life specialists supplied by the medical centers are always on hand.

“Many of the children who attend Camp Dream Street come from single-parent families, foster care, or are raised by grandparents,” Seiden said. “The families are so grateful. Some of these families are even on public assistance, and the chance to have their children attend a program of this kind takes on real additional meaning.”

The JCC provides the facility and everything is free to the families, including door-to-door transportation from as far away as the Bronx; breakfast and lunch; recreation, which includes instruction in various sports and a carnival; and Camp Dream Street backpacks and T-shirts. High school and college-age counselors volunteer their time. The camp is financially supported by Tomorrows Children Institute; Children’s Hospital of New York Presbyterian; the Beatman Foundation; RD Legal Funding, LLC; and the Camp Dream Street Foundation, which donates $10,000 annually. The national foundation funds seven residential camps for ill children, but only this day camp.

Work on the camp begins at the end of January. Lisa Robins, a Kaplen JCC staffer who heads the seniors department, reaches out to counselors and begins interviewing. She is responsible for finding the specialists who teach things like tae kwon do, weaving, and pottery. “It’s her organizational skill that brings everything together,” said Seiden. The two women are on hand for every moment of the camp, which runs Monday through Friday, the last week in August, from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. The week ends with a family barbecue the following Sunday.

“Just kids”

The week before camp begins, there is a meeting with the organizations that refer the children to get the latest information on each one’s medical condition. Kids need to be well enough to come to camp, although some come with the help of an aide or a wheelchair. There are also issues that are caused by the treatment, not the disease; for instance, treatment for brain tumors often causes emotional problems. It’s also not unusual for some of the siblings to come with medical conditions of their own. Cancer or illness is not discussed at camp unless a child brings it up.

One counselor who returned for her third year was Emily Golden, 23, of Paramus. In 2006, when she was 19, she was diagnosed with cancer and attended another camp run by the Dream Street Foundation. Last year she worked as a counselor in the Tenafly camp while on crutches, but today she is in remission.

“I know myself that you get a lot of attention when you’re sick, but it’s not fun attention,” says Golden. “You spend a lot of time in the hospital with doctors. So this is a fun place to be for these kids. They just get to be kids.” Golden cited the matter-of-fact ways that some of the campers deal with their illnesses. She worked with a blind child last year who longed to play checkers. “He finally engineered a way to mark the red pieces with masking tape so that he could tell them apart by feel. He ended up beating me!”

Counselors get a special orientation before camp starts. They are not told the diagnoses for any of the children, only the issues that require special care, such as problems with balance, the need to stay hydrated, the need to avoid sudden temperature changes, and the like. Many return year after year and find that their careers are shaped by the experience. “We’ve had kids become doctors and nurses and child-life specialists as a result of this experience,” Seiden said.

“I don’t think I can speak highly enough of this place,” said Golden. “Having had my own experience, I can’t believe that there are all these people willing to help. I’ve been blessed to be part of the Dream Street family.”

Seiden said she is overjoyed that Camp Dream Street is celebrating its 20th anniversary. “For me personally, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. I love being able to see the campers from year to year. Sometimes a kid comes one year and he’s so sick he can hardly get here each day. The next year he comes back and he’s so much better. It’s wonderful to see.” Kids can attend up to five years post-treatment. Sometimes siblings will attend even if a sister or brother is too ill to come or has died.

Seiden said that the camp on average loses one child a year to death. “It’s very sad. I wish there were no need for this camp,” she said, shaking her head. “But until then, we’re here for this population. Hopefully during this one week [each year] we can provide a lot of sunshine.”

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