As the kids step off the bus and into Camp Simcha, smiles stretch across their faces at the sight of 200 girls singing and dancing around them. Me, I’m trying not to cry as I cheer and clap with everyone else greeting the kids. Illness has aged these children, and the pain they’ve endured has made them wise beyond their years.

Some campers return looking healthier; their hair has grown back and there’s more bounce in their step. With a heavy heart, I notice that others have taken a turn for the worse: the cancer’s spread, the body’s deteriorating.

Regardless of how they feel physically, the anticipation for these two weeks of magic is palpable.

Camp Simcha and Camp Simcha Special serve kids with cancer and chronic illness respectively, and life at home for these kids is anything but magical. A year of medical and emotional turmoil takes its toll on the children as well as their families. Camp Simcha provides respite for families so that they can re-charge their batteries for whatever comes next. At camp, kids participate in awesome activities adapted to foster inclusion and maximize fun. The staff to camper ratio is an impressive 2:1. A highly skilled medical team of pediatric oncologists, nurses, EMTs, therapists, and pharmacists assures a safe and healthy camp experience for even the most medically fragile. But most importantly, kids get what they really need: an infusion of simcha, joy.

Here there are no wheelchairs, no g-tubes, and no prosthetics; just souls. One night, the camp was playing a giant round of “Simon Says” when eight-year-old Rachel started crying. Sarah, a wheelchair-bound camper, rolled up to her and asked what was wrong. “Simon said clap your hands, and I don’t have any,” sobbed Rachel.

 

“Oh, don’t worry,” Sarah consoled her, “we can be a team! I’ll be your hands, and you’ll be my feet.” And with that, Rachel was back in the game with a smile on her face.

Resilience and Courage

As they run from one workshop to the next, splash in the pool, and sing their hearts out on stage, a piece of their childhood is restored. It’s been six years since I first came as a volunteer to Camp Simcha, and the camp never ceases to amaze me. A few years ago, Rochie had just started chemotherapy. Her hair, something of great importance to every teenage girl, had started falling out in clumps. Instead of becoming depressed, Rochie decided she wanted an upsherin, the Chasidic celebration in which 3-year old boys get their first haircut. In true Camp Simcha fashion, Rochie’s hair loss was transformed into a major festivity as every staff member took a snip of Rochie’s hair amid great cheer and laughter. Rochie’s been back to camp since then, thank God with a full head of curly hair, and now she looks back on the night she lost her hair with a smile.

The resilience, the courage, and most importantly, the compassion that these kids show...well, sometimes I think the campers are giving me more than I give them. In appreciation for six life-changing years at Camp Simcha, I’ve decided to run the Miami Half-Marathon. I’ll be running in honor of an extraordinary camper, Maya. When I met Maya at camp this summer, I was instantly drawn to her. Her sweetness and spunk is infectious. Although it takes her longer than most to hop, skip, and jump, she’s always quick to smile. Watching Maya bounce from a concert to a helicopter ride to a candle-making workshop, one could easily forget her extraordinary journey.

Maya and Marathon

At three, Maya was diagnosed with Pilomyxoid Astrocytoma, a rare brain cancer. She had a golf-ball-sized brain tumor and four down her spine; the prognosis was grim. Maya’s parents were told her chances of survival were minimal and prepared to say goodbye. Meanwhile, she was started on a two and half year course of chemotherapy. Six months into her treatment, the unimaginable happened: her tumors began to shrink.

It was a long, arduous journey, but Maya’s now 11. She’s had an operation every year since diagnosis and has an ongoing seizure disorder. Maya and her family are still dealing with significant neurological issues. Despite her difficulties and the enormous amount of school that she misses each year, she has just entered middle school (amazingly, at grade level). Her mom says Maya is a miracle, and she’s right.

You can help me keep miracles like Maya’s going at Camp Simcha by sponsoring me as I run for Team Lifeline. Donate today by visiting www.teamlifeline.org/my/60176.

Photo credit: Camp Simcha Media Team