Children battling cancer enjoy normalcy at Kay’s Kamp

Kate McKinery

Kate McKinery

Kids battling cancer, and those in remission, are enjoying a week at camp in Middletown, Delaware this week.

Singing, chanting and laughter filled a banquet hall at St. Andrew’s school in Middletown Wednesday afternoon.

Idina Menzel’s “Let it Go” from Disney’s “Frozen” boomed from the speakers, and 8-year-old Kate McKinery stood on a cafeteria table, sang along and mimed the lyrics—her arms stretching up in the air as Menzel sang:

Here I stand, in the light of day. Let the storm rage on! The cold never bothered me anyway…

Dozens of kids and adult chaperones cheered her on.

This is the second year Kate, a Middletown resident, has attended Kay’s Kamp, an annual gathering for children battling cancer or in remission.

“I think the activities are really fun, and my doctors say I need to have a lot of activities during the summer,” Kate said. “So my parents signed me up last year, and I really liked it, so I wanted to come back the next year and they said if they had nothing planned I could.”

Now in its 8th year, Kay’s Kamp was established in 2009 to fulfill the last wish of Kaylyn Warren, who was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia at 17.

Her mother Laurie Warren, who runs the camp with her husband Bill Warren, said since then the event has evolved from 11 campers and 40 staff to 50 campers and 150 staff. Children come from Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

“I think (Kaylyn) would probably be laughing at me, because I’m not a camper. But I think she would be so pleased and so happy these children get to experience some fun and some normalcy,” Warren said.

“Most of them can’t go to a regular camp because of their medical issues, and they can come here and take off their wigs and be a kid, be normal.”

The camp is completely free, as Warren understands parents face financial burdens with the cost of medical care, as insurance doesn’t cover everything. The camp is funded from donations from the general community and corporations.

Bonnie Kelly’s 13-year-old daughter Kara, who was diagnosed with brain cancer at age 7, has attended the camp since it opened. Kelly said she wasn’t sure how Kara, now 13, would handle it because she was very shy.

“I was so amazed at how she lit up and how she really embraced the whole camp experience,” said the Garnet Valley, Pa. resident. “The first year we were very anxious about it, but when we picked her up she was a new child with a new found confidence.”

Johnathan Malmstrom, 16, has attended the camp every year. The Smyrna resident received treatment for Langerhans Cell Histiocytosis between 10 weeks old and age 2.

“Even though I’m not currently getting treatment I see all these others kids that are, and this is their place to get away and it’s really cool to see that happen and I get to be a part of it,” Johnathan said. “I think it’s the fact we’re all here instead of in a hospital that brings us together.”

Doctors and nurses from Christiana and A.I. duPont hospitals, who use their vacation time to volunteer at the camp, are on staff 24/7 to offer treatments, including chemotherapy. They exchange their white coats and scrubs for shorts and T-shirts and call the medical room the “zoo.”

“It’s all about making the kids feel comfortable,” said medical coordination director Mary Ellen McKnight. “The zoo has become the kitchen of the house. It’s that safe haven. If they’re tired, having a long day, they can come in and get a hug, they can come in and chill out for a minute.”

This year’s theme is “road trip.” The children have enjoyed everything from Dallas barbecue to meeting action figures to celebrate California’s Comic-Con.

They also enjoy everyday activities.

“They still want to run, they still want to play games, and interact and play kickball. The problem is the cancer kicks away that normalcy part. So unfortunately they can’t do a lot of what normal kids do,” McKnight said. “So we make sure all our activities are based around what they can do and they’re not centered on what they can’t do. We make sure everybody feels included.”

Kate said she loves to hike and swim at the camp.

“It feels good to kind of get moving,” she said. “Because sometimes during the summer I just stay at home, so it feels good to get moving.”

Children must receive permission from their physicians to attend, but McKnight said the staff does everything they can to get them there.

“The docs at A.I. are amazing, and they know how important camp is to these kids, and they do everything in their power,” she said. “We have one girl who gets chemo every week and her parents and oncologist said she could take off the week to come to camp.”

Jonathan said next year he will be a counselor in training.

”I will be coming back here for a long, long time,” he said. “Like they say, ‘Until there’s a cure, there’s Kamp.’”

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