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Camp is refuge for kids touched by cancer

Volunteer Judie Horowitz enjoys friendly arm wrestling with

Volunteer Judie Horowitz enjoys friendly arm wrestling with program attendee Sebastian Quiles at an end-of-year family gathering last month at SIBSPlace, a program for kids affected by serious illness. (June 28, 2012) Credit: Linda Rosier

By all appearances, it seems like an ordinary sleep-away camp: Children ages 6-18 participate in various sports, arts and crafts projects and enjoy swimming, archery, music and nature activities. "Ordinary" is how the children at Camp Adventure on Shelter Island like it — because their lives outside of camp are anything but.

Everyone at the camp — which is free — has been affected by cancer. So for a week each August, the young patients are just carefree adolescents, having fun in the sun. As a bonus, Camp Adventure, an American Cancer Society program founded in 1990, provides attendance for siblings as well, creating a unique opportunity for them to bond through a positive experience and to forge friendships among children sharing similar challenges.

Geoff Bansen, 23, of Lindenhurst was diagnosed with a brain tumor when he was 14. It was successfully removed, and after a year of physical therapy to relearn basic tasks such as walking, he and his younger sister attended Camp Adventure in 2005 for the first time.

 

'A whole new world'

"It opened up a whole new world of people who related to what I was going through as a sibling," said Nicole Bansen, now 20. "I always had friends who tried to relate and comfort me, but meeting other people who also had brothers or sisters going through this, who know the processes that you're going through, it's a great support system."

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Her brother, a Stony Brook University graduate, agrees. "It's a special experience," Bansen said. "For the patients, it's one week where they can just be a kid. For the siblings, they don't feel left out. And everyone is there to just have fun."

Having grown to the camper age limit, the Bansen siblings are now volunteers.

Camp Adventure is staffed by cancer survivors, trained volunteers and professionals. In addition, a medical team is on hand full-time for all types of health issues, including emergencies. Last year almost 150 children attended the camp, according to Ashley Engelman, a project manager at the American Cancer Society. Funding for the program comes from individual donors, businesses and foundations.

 

Siblings helping siblings

Also free is Hewlett-based Camp SIBS, a six-week day camp for children 5-17 with a sibling or parent dealing with cancer. Camp SIBS (Survivorship in Brothers and Sisters) provides on-site and off-site activities, such as rock climbing and horseback riding, which are designed to build peer support and empowerment skills. Other camp activities include museum visits, drumming and yoga. About 30 children attend the camp, which also comes with therapy sessions where campers can talk about issues they struggle with at home.

The focus of the camp and SIBSPlace, a companion year-round support program, is to help well children learn the coping skills necessary to get through such a chaotic family experience, explained program supervisor and social worker Suzanne Kornblatt. When one child is critically ill, there are often abandonment issues for the well sibling.

"The parents are at the hospital with the ill child, sometimes for months at a time," she said. "Everyone is concentrating on the ill person," so the well child can lose a sense of being an important member of the family. At SIBSPlace they receive one-on-one attention, and they're encouraged to express their thoughts and emotions.

SIBSPlace was founded in 2000 by South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside. The donor-funded program serves children from all over Long Island whose loved ones are facing cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. Participants are referred through hospital and school recommendations.

"We talk about our feelings," said Sachelle Jonas, 16, of Inwood, whose mom is battling breast cancer.

Fear is what another camper said she feels. "When you find out your sister or brother is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, it's really scary," said Faryal Mohamed, 13, of East Meadow. Her 8-year-old sister was diagnosed with kidney failure, requiring a transplant.

Roman Cannon, 10, of Franklin Square, has a younger brother who has leukemia. "He just lays down all day and watches TV," he said of Peter, 8, quickly pointing out that "it's not his fault."

At SIBSPlace he knows he's not alone because his friends there "know what it's like. I can say 'my little brother has cancer,' and they say 'my mom has cancer.' Everyone understands."

Teaching the children to express their emotions and communicate their anxiety, confusion, sadness and fear is one of this program's goals.

Since its founding, SIBSPlace has served 200 children, Kornblatt said, with some children benefiting from the program for years, as cancer treatment can often be a lengthy process.

Sachelle has attended SIBSPlace for two years.

"We're all in the same situation, so it helps a lot," she said. And she added she feels safe there, free to express her anguish over her mother's diagnosis. "My mom is my best friend," she said, as tears rolled down her cheeks. "I almost lost her."

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