Camp brightens lives long after summer ends

Campers and counselors participate in group-led songs, including Camp Rainbow’s anthem about the camp being home. Camp Rainbow serves campers who are patients and survivors of cancer and other blood-related disease.

BY HANNAH BOXERMAN, St. Louis Jewish Light

Nicole Giamanco is like any other summer camp doctor, specializing in the usual duties of the “camp doc”: Putting Band-Aids on scrapes, pulling off stubborn ticks, treating sunburns.

However, both she and her young patients have experienced more medical treatments than most people ever will in their lifetime.

Giamanco is the pediatrician at Camp Rainbow, a weeklong children’s summer camp in St. Louis County for patients and survivors of cancer and other blood-related diseases. Giamanco, who also has studied oncology and pediatric hematology, attended the foundation’s teen camp herself when diagnosed with leukemia at the age of 14.

Camp Rainbow, founded by St. Louis residents Ronnie and Allen Brockman, is in its 25th year of bringing the summer camp experience to children ages 6-13 whose medical treatments would otherwise make attending sleep-away camp impossible. This year’s camp was held June 10-14.

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“A girl with cancer can’t just go to something like Girl Scout camp,” Giamanco said. “But we set that experience up for them here.”

Activities offered at Camp Rainbow, which is held yearly at Babler State Park in Wildwood, are similar to those enjoyed at other summer camps. Campers swim, play sports, work on arts and crafts, fish, make music and more. Camp culminates in a talent show where campers sing, dance and play instruments, but the highlight of the week is the sticky and much-anticipated “Jell-O toss,” when campers throw Jell-O at counselors and staff.

For camper Veronica, who celebrated her 13th birthday while at Camp Rainbow, camp “gets better every year—it’s rocking awesome!” (Her last name was not used to protect her privacy.)

Veronica, who originally came to St. Louis from Mexico for treatment, returned to thestates this summer to attend Camp Rainbow for the second year. She played the recorder in the talent show, and Camp Rainbow Marketing Director Carly Scaduto said that she, “really came out of her shell.”

Laura Kaufman, Camp Rainbow’s program coordinator, said that this is common of campers, who might not feel comfortable in other summer programs. She related a story about a 12-year-old camper whose cancer had left him with visible physical differences and a speech impediment, but who played football and other games with his peers without any attention being called to his physical appearance.

“When his parents picked him up I said, ‘Oh my gosh, he had the best week, he was having fun the whole time,’” she said. “And his mom started to cry. She said that he had gone to another camp and had been made fun of the entire time that he was there. And so she was so happy to hear that he had so much fun here and fit in so well; and that’s what Camp Rainbow is all about.”

Giamanco agreed that having a network of kids who faced the same issues was conducive to Camp Rainbow’s more supportive atmosphere.

“It would never occur to anyone at Camp Rainbow to be mean or to pick on anyone else, which we know happens at other camps among kids,” she said. “That’s just not the way it is here.”

The accepting environment is partly made possible by the work of high school and college-aged counselors, who, Giamanco said, “spend a week making campers feel as happy and as good about themselves as possible.”

Two such volunteers are Kyle Tons, a recent University of Missouri-Columbia graduate, and Tori Balkin, a senior at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Both have been involved in Camp Rainbow for several years: Tons for seven years, Balkin for four.

“As soon as these kids get out of the cars and come to camp they’re these completely different people,” Balkin said. “Everyone is so different from one another and they literally just all work together to get through the week with their counselors and with other campers.”

The key to Camp Rainbow, Tons said, was to help kids whose lives were disrupted by disease feel like they could have an ordinary summer experience.

“It’s important for every kid to get the chance to be treated as normal at camp, and to get the experience that any other kid could,” he said.

Scaduto said that many kids even see the opportunity to attend Camp Rainbow as their motivation to heal.

“Their doctors will say to them, ‘You need to fight and push through so that you can go!’” she said.

When it comes to Camp Rainbow’s many activities, Kaufman said, any child could participate regardless of his or her physical condition.

“There are some times that we have to adjust the way activities happen or what we can do,” she said. “But if a kid is in a wheelchair we find a different way to play soccer; or, if a kid is missing a limb we find other ways to help them still participate in the activity so they have just as much fun, even though the game may not look the way that someone might think it’s supposed to.

“This is the one week out of the year that these kids aren’t going to the doctor’s office every day, they’re not in a hospital,” she continued. “They are doing everyday camp activities—things that every child should be able to do.”

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