Camp Ooch puts friendship and fun in the front seat

 Connecting with children their own age helps campers develop skills for interacting with others.  supplied

Connecting with children their own age helps campers develop skills for interacting with others.  supplied

Before going to sleep, in the quiet of the cabin, campers talk about their “rose, thorn and bud” of the day, and Alex Robertson always looks forward to this sharing of highlights, challenges and expectations at Camp Oochigeas (Ooch) in Muskoka, Ontario.

He believes that what makes these moments so special is not only what the children typically talk about: friendships, activities and experiences. It’s what they don’t dwell on: living with cancer.

“At Camp Ooch, where everyone is affected by cancer, children have the chance to put friendship and fun in the front seat and cancer in the backseat,” says Mr. Robertson, CEO of Camp Ooch, who also returns every summer as camp counsellor.

At the only overnight camp in Canada that provides onsite intravenous chemotherapy and blood transfusions, the med shed – as the treatment centre is called – holds medical equipment and musical instruments and games. “Last year, I accompanied a seven-year-old to get his push of chemo every morning,” Mr. Robertson recalls. “We played a game of Uno while he was getting hooked up, and after his PIC line was wrapped up, we’d join the early morning swim.”
Reflecting Canada’s demographics of children with cancer, the campers may have leukemia, brain and central nervous system cancers or lymphomas.

They may be recovering from surgeries and radiation, and often have further rounds of therapies ahead of them. “[Children with cancer] spend a lot of time in hospitals and with their parents or guardians since many are too sick to go to school,” says Mr. Robertson. “Since their chances to socialize and make new friends are limited, they can miss out on milestones that are integral to a healthy development.

 Children at Camp Ooch don’t dwell on living with cancer. supplied

Children at Camp Ooch don’t dwell on living with cancer. supplied

“Camp changes that,” he adds. Feedback from families, doctors and nurses confirms that connecting with children their own age helps campers develop skills for interacting with others – it also fosters a sense of belonging. Camp Ooch programs are provided at no cost to campers and their families, explains Mr. Robertson. “Since we don’t receive government or hospital funding, what we call the ‘Magic of Ooch’ happens only because of our amazing community of donors and volunteers.”

Camp Ooch currently serves about 20 per cent of Ontario’s children with cancer, with programs in Muskoka, at Ooch Downtown in Toronto and at various pediatric hospitals, he says. “There are still many kids who don’t have access to an oncology camp, and we’re aiming to increase our capacity and also reach children who are unable to attend overnight camps.”

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