Finding Joy

FOR NEARLY 30 YEARS, Camp Wapiyapi has played a vital role in the lives of children facing the effects of pediatric cancer. Each summer through two-week-long sessions, 150 camper patients and siblings are welcome to just be kids. “Wapiyapi” (a Lakota Sioux word chosen by campers that means healing) has served over 2,000 children ranging from ages 6-17, at no cost to their families where they’re surrounded by nature and nurturing counselors.

Founded by a group of University of Colorado medical students in the early 1990s, the camp now takes place at Quaker Ridge Camp in Woodland Park with 91 percent of campers from Colorado and 9 percent from surrounding states. Although the pandemic prompted a virtual camp experience in 2020 and again this year, the camp is still a place of joy, acceptance, and emotional healing.

Cancer can be devastating at any age but it can be particularly harmful to a child’s psychological growth and development. Kids not only face harsh treatments to their bodies, but they also face long-term effects such as blindness, amputation, or skeletal abnormalities. Children feel different and struggle to assimilate back into their typical childhood activities. And the mental trauma impacts every member of the family, with siblings suffering from the loss of a close relationship with their parents and brothers and sisters. On top of all of that, the financial burden of cancer creates even more challenges as parents struggle to meet their children’s needs while holding on to their jobs.

Camp Wapiyapi provides a welcome respite from the daily challenges of childhood cancer and an additional circle from which families may draw the strength for continued healing. As a parent described, camp is about relationships with those who understand their journey and accept them just as they are. It provides an opportunity for campers to be like other kids and to enjoy friendships within a nurturing community of support. “I will never forget the words of comfort our nurse shared the day our son was diagnosed: ‘It’s going to be okay. He’ll go through treatment, lose his hair, and go to Camp Wapiyapi.’”

Unlike most camps that focus on patients, Camp Wapiyapi serves the family. Siblings experience the same emotional upheaval as parents and yet have less capacity to cope. Camp is an important outlet for them as they adjust to a new family routine. It also allows parents a chance to take a break and refocus on themselves. As they begin to trust others and engage in self-care, this important first step in the healing process builds the resiliency of their entire family.

David Panzer, board president, and camper parent knows first-hand how important summer camp is, especially during Covid. “Cancer treatment can be really difficult for a kid – and it’s tough on the whole family. When my son was in treatment, Wapiyapi offered independence, fun, and adventure to him and his brothers. It was a rare chance for them to go off and be free, to just be kids – and my wife and I knew they were part of a safe, supportive program.”

“For children and families experiencing cancer, promoting health happens in many important ways,” according to Todd Ungar, M.D. and camp physician. “Camp Wapiyapi’s concept of ‘Healing Outside of the Hospital’ creates an experience that brings joy and empowerment to patients, emotional validation to siblings, and solace to parents. It is wonderful to be involved with a compassionate community that delivers this type of care.”

Because a sense of independence is lost due to a pediatric cancer diagnosis, kids can expect the freedom to choose their activities throughout the week. They can enjoy outdoor adventures like ziplining and high ropes, swimming, basketball, bikes, and more, while traditional ‘Color Games,’ campfire sing-alongs, a dance, and talent show augment the week.

Families can expect a week filled with summer fun at no charge where campers can discover friendship, community, and endless love and support. A well-trained, vetted volunteer staff provides personalized support to encourage campers to make friends and try new things. Parents can expect to hear all about “The Best Week of the Year” long after their children return home.

And Covid won’t stop that best week ever! This summer, vaccinated volunteers will assemble and personally deliver Camp Packs to each camper to create excitement for the week and provide the supplies they will need to participate. Each day campers will get outside for play and adventure, while team activities will build a sense of togetherness. Campers can dive under the sea with the sharks, tour a beehive with a camp nurse, challenge one another in The Great S’mores Bake-off, and so much more, while off-screen activities include water games, mad science fun, and superhero challenges. A new Hospital Liaison role will help kids feel connected, even if their participation is uneven due to treatment or not feeling well. In-person or virtual, the goal is to provide a unique form of psychosocial healing. Being with others who understand and accept them has a profound impact on their development. Kids build confidence, community and develop resiliency to cope which many will carry into their lives, knowing that they are still important people, even if they have disabilities or are frequently ill.

These kids need to be kids and the Wapiyapi spirit lives on in their lives as well and their families long after summer ends. To continue the worthy cause of supporting these children,  Camp Wapiyapi will host their event called Campfires and Cocktails on September 23rd at the Wellshire Event Center.