SOUTHERN INDIANA — For the past few years, 8-year-old cancer survivor Walker Brooks of Charlestown has been an enthusiastic camper with Camp Quality Kentuckiana, a weeklong summer camp for kids affected by cancer.
When he was 3-months old, Walter was diagnosed with stage 3 neuroblastoma, and he is now going on seven years of being cancer-free.
For Walker, the friends he has met at Camp Quality are like a second family, his mother, Kelly, said. This week, he is one of nearly a hundred kids coming together for a mostly-virtual camp experience.
“He really loves it,” Kelly said. “He’s ready to go back in person, but I love that they’re still providing an opportunity for him to see his friends.”
Camp Quality Kentuckiana brings together kids 5 to 16 who are in treatment for cancer, are in remission or have battled cancer in the past. For the second consecutive year, the camp is taking place in a virtual format due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Usually, the camp takes place at Country Lake Christian Retreat in Underwood, Indiana, but the camp has switched to the virtual “CAMP IN” program to keep the kids safe.
“These are kids with compromised immune systems, so during COVID we’ve had to be even more careful,” Camp Quality Executive Director Eddie Bobbitt said.
About 90 campers are signed up this year for a week full of activities. The camp kicked off Sunday and continues through Friday.
The theme of this year’s virtual camp is “thrive,” and it is filled with daily activities focused on the theme, including sessions through Zoom livestreams and Flipgrid videos.
“Camp Quality is not a place — it’s a community,” Bobbitt said. “Even though we’re not physically together, we’re still together.”
For Walker, this is his third year of Camp Quality, and he has only attended one in-person camp. His mother said he “loves everything about it,” including the crafts and interactions with his fellow campers.
Kelly said the camp occurs after Walker’s yearly blood work, an occasion that can be stressful for him, and Camp Quality gives him something to look forward to after the visit to his oncologist.
On Sunday, about 35 volunteers drove all over Kentucky and Indiana to deliver “huge, Santa Claus-like” bags of activities, games and T-shirts to kids and families, Bobbitt said.
Although most of the activities are taking place virtually this year, a Monday night event allowed campers to enjoy an in-person, socially-distanced event as Camp Quality rented out the Sauerbeck Family Drive-In in Kentucky.
The event featured a fireworks show by Zambelli Fireworks, the company behind the Thunder Over Louisville displays, as well as hot air balloon rides and a showing of the movie “Sonic the Hedgehog.”
A Monday fireworks display is a tradition for Camp Quality, so this “brings some normalcy back to their lives,” Bobbitt said.
Each morning, the kids tune into Camp Quality’s virtual “news desk” to learn about what is in store for the day, and they break into individual teams to enjoy games, trivia and other activities.
The campers were given a variety of optional craft activities, and on Monday, the kids created sand art.
New Albany High School Theatre Arts has recorded a performance with a medley of songs for the kids to enjoy this week, and the Kentucky Science Center provided science kits.
On Thursday, kids will participate in a virtual talent show featuring a compilation of videos of the kids performing their chosen talent.
Friday’s closing ceremony will recognize the volunteers and graduating campers, as well as pay tribute to any campers who may have died.
Bobbitt said the aim is to provide support for kids who are dealing with cancer, noting that even those who are now cancer-free might still be overcoming physical, social and emotional issues.
Camp Quality also provides an opportunity for families of children dealing with cancer to connect with each other.
“We’re here to support them, and also be a support-vehicle for parents,” Bobbitt said. “There are parents who know what it’s like to have kids to go through it, and when there’s a new family to go through it, there’s now 100 sets of parents to rally behind the new family going through this dreaded nightmare.”
Taylor Goetz, companion coordinator at Camp Quality Kentuckiana, has been involved with the camp for 13 years.
Her brother was a participant at Camp Quality for several years, inspiring her to become involved. He is healthy now, but at age 9, he was diagnosed with a Wilms’ tumor and went through six months of chemotherapy and radiation.
Goetz became involved at age 18 as a “companion,” or a volunteer paired with the individual campers, and she has volunteered in multiple capacities over the years.
“It’s literally life-changing,” she said. “I know that sounds silly to say or think about, but the relationships, the emotional factors, the connections that are made through this camp are unlike anything else.”
This year, Camp Quality wasn’t able to match companions one-on-one with campers, but more than 40 companions signed up as volunteers with the virtual camp, Goetz said.
It’s difficult not being in-person for Camp Quality, she said, but they are “making the best of it.”
The camp provides a “safe space” for kids affected by cancer, Goetz said. She noted that even if kids have finished their treatment, many face side effects for years to come, and they can build relationships with others who have faced a similar experience.
“It’s a safe space to talk to people who have been in the same situation without feeling uncomfortable or fearing judgement,” she said.
Bobbitt said they aimed to keep the kids physically safe with the cancellation of the in-person camp, but they also have to address their emotional needs and mental health.
“When you have that many kids on Zoom calls and singing campfire songs and these kids jumping on calls and interacting with each other, it stresses the importance of our organization and our mission to let kids with cancer be kids again,” he said.