COLLIN COUNTY, Texas (CBSDFW.COM) – Tucked into the quiet undeveloped woods of northern Collin County, the screams of happy children blend into the sense of summer nostalgia.
Some are jumping into the pool, others are buckled and screaming their way down the zip line.
All of them have been touched by cancer.
Welcome to Medical City Children’s Camp I Hope.
“I was nervous that I wouldn’t have fun,” says 8-year-old cancer survivor Samuel Gebre of Garland, “but I felt when I started doing stuff, it felt amazing!”
Samuel says his favorite camp activities have been archery, BB guns and, “I got to go swimming a lot of times.”
His account, punctuated by a mega-watt smile.
Those smiles make the year long effort to organize and fund raise for the weeklong camp worthwhile.
“The smile on the kids’ faces and knowing they got to throw jello at me…or jello at one of their doctors, or they got to push us in the pool. They get to see us in a while different context and it’s just really… it’s amazing,” says Deb Echtenkamp, the Pediatric Oncology Manager at Medical City Children’s and the driving force behind the camp’s creation. “I don’t know what else to say. It makes us happy and give gives us the boost to get through the hard times at work.”
Alex Kiker says she first learned about the camp when she was undergoing cancer treatment at 11.
“I was actually pretty scared at first,” says Alex, now 14. “I didn’t want to leave my Mom, and then I got here, the counselors would run up to me and hug me and I just automatically fit right in.”
Now, she calls the annual week long summer camp “better than Christmas.”
A medical shed on site administers antibiotics and even campers’ chemotherapy if needed.
“Camp to me is a part of healing,” says Echtenkamp, “they come and they get their medicine–that takes care of their cancer, but places like camp takes care of their soul.”
Campers enjoy swimming, archery, crafts, rock climbing, a spa session and more.
“They get to be outside, be with other kids and the one thing they say to us all the time is ‘they don’t have to explain anything’ the other kids here get it,” says Echtenkamp.
And Alex agrees.
“It’s the best feeling ever, getting to come here and then being with everyone who’s just like you and is so supportive,” adding that the feeling is getting to be “normal”… “You’re like, that person doesn’t have hair, either.”
The camp, now in its ninth year, also includes siblings.
“We include them because a lot of times, siblings are left out, not on purpose, but parents have to focus on the child who has cancer,” explains Echtenkamp.
The number of campers served has doubled over the years.
Hospital staffers say that wouldn’t be possible without the generosity of North Texas businesses and individuals who give of their time and money to keep the weeklong camp free for the campers.
Meanwhile, Samuel, who fought cancer as a 4-year-old, says the thing he looks forward to sharing with his friends at home, is how many new friends he made at Camp I Hope.
And then he made sure to add that there was something else he needed to share: “The counselors are amazing!”