Ever since Hayden Godwin was diagnosed with leukemia when he was 4 years old, he’s felt like people treat him differently. Now 13 years old and in remission, he said he still gets the impression people don’t think he’s very strong, smart or independent, but not at Kay’s Kamp.
That’s because the Middletown-based summer camp is specifically for kids living with cancer, just like Godwin.
“People sometimes think that because I’ve had cancer there are big setbacks, but this camp takes that all away,” said Godwin, who lives in Bear. “You can be you here.”
Kay’s Kamp is the vision of Kaylyn Warren, a teen from Bear who was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic (or lymphoblastic) leukemia at the age of 17. Warren spent most of her treatment at Christiana Hospital and the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center in Newark, except for a brief two-month stretch in Seattle at the Fred Hutchinson Center. There, Warren hoped to receive a life-saving stem cell transplant, but her leukemia was too strong and the transplant never happened.
She passed away on March 13, 2007, at the age of 18, almost one year after graduating from Red Lion Christian Academy in Bear.
According to Mary Ellen McKnight, one of Warren’s oncology nurses at Christiana and her hospice nurse, it was Warren’s dying wish to create a camp where kids battling cancer could experience some “normal” in their now not-so-normal lives.
“Kaylyn wanted to create a camp because she loved camp. She used to say to me, ‘I can’t be a normal teenager. I just want somewhere I can be normal,’” McKnight said.
McKnight said children with cancer often feel emotionally, physically and mentally isolated, so Warren thought a weeklong, overnight summer camp would be the perfect place for them to forget about their cancer and just be kids. She said most children with cancer just want to be surrounded by people who understand and accept them for who they are.
“Instead of what they have or survived or went through,” McKnight said.
Kay’s Kamp was established in August 2009 and the number of campers has grown rapidly since then, from 11 to 48. The camp, which is free for campers and run completely by volunteers, wrapped up it’s ninth year last week at St. Andrew’s School in Middletown. There, campers participated in a variety of activities including sports and games, music, arts and crafts, canoeing, fishing, swimming, archery and digital photography.
Madison Saunders, 16, of Newark, has been coming to Kay’s Kamp for the past eight summers, ever since her doctor at A.I. duPont Hospital for Children recommended it.
“I fell in love with it, that’s why I continue to come back,” she said.
Saunders was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia as a child, but is now in her 10th year of remission. She said her favorite activity at camp is playing sports, especially softball, but she also really enjoys interacting with the other campers and hearing their stories. Last week, campers enjoyed a carnival themed night, slid down water slides and bounced on inflatables.
“I even get emotional leaving,” Saunders said. “I don’t want camp to end. This is what I look forward to all year.”
At camp, she said, she has the confidence to be herself, despite the cancer.
“I don’t need anyone else to tell me I should be different than someone. I’m the same as anyone else,” she said. “I’m usually shy, but camp helps me break out of my shell. I feel like the camp accepts every person and who each one of the campers are.”
At Kay’s Kamp, there’s 24/7 medical care, but staff members try to make it as fun as possible. Nurses and doctors are referred to as the “zookeepers,” and the infirmary is known as the “zoo.”
McKnight, who serves as the camp’s medical coordination director, said most campers have to come to the zoo to take regular medication, but the staff is also trained to administer oral chemotherapy, growth hormone shots and general first aid, maintain central lines, check blood sugars and treat the various long-term side effects of chemotherapy, called “late effects.”
But most kids at Kay’s Kamp try not to think about the medical aspect and instead focus on having fun. That’s pretty easy to do, according to Godwin, who said the counselors always make sure the campers have the best week possible.
“It’s crazy and wacky and you want to come back every year and see what’s new and all your friends again,” he said. “My favorite year was the space theme. There were aliens and we had to battle them before they started taking people. We had to spray them with water guns.”
Godwin has been coming to camp for six years and said he feels like he always has someone to talk to.
“It’s comforting to know you’re not the only one who has gone through this,” he said. “Everyone here has a story to tell.”
For Justin Wilcox, 16, of Hockessin, that support system is crucial. He was diagnosed with leukemia when he was 2 years old and is now in remission, but at camp, he said, he doesn’t have to worry about anyone judging him and that’s a huge weight off his shoulders. He said people who don’t understand tend to use his cancer to define him.
“They worry about me and think that I’m special, which can get annoying,” he said. “Camp is where people can just be friends and have fun. Most people see people who have issues as weird and if you just see past that, you will want to hang out with them and be their friend.”
Wilcox had been coming to Kay’s Kamp for the past eight years and said his favorite part is when the entire camp gets together for night activities. Next year, he plans to be a leader-in-training, meaning he will be in the running to eventually become a counselor. He said he wants to give back to the camp and be a role model for future generations of campers.
“I love coming here,” Wilcox said. “I love all the people here and I just want to hang out with them as much as I can.”
For more information, or to donate to Kay’s Kamp, visit KaysKamp.org.