STREETERVILLE — Camp Kids Are Kids, hosted at the Ritz-Carlton Chicago this week, kicked off Sunday for 32 8- to 16-year-olds housed in bunk beds on a floor of the Downtown hotel divided into color-coded "cabins."
"Other than the meds that people get at dinnertime and in the morning and lunch and stuff, it's basically the same" as any other weeklong sleep-away camp hosted in the Chicago area during the summer, according to 12-year-old camper Eric.
The only difference: All the participants have cancer.
Lizzie Schiffman says it takes a lot of time and effort, but the event is well worth it for the kids and volunteers:
Between scheduled events like science experiments, scavenger hunts, and arts and crafts are "those bits of magic you can't plan for, where these kids' lives aren't overwhelmed by the disease they're fighting," said Amy Rohyans Stewart, the camp's child life coordinator.
Taking breaks from their rigorous health care regimens to have fun with counselors and their peers "can be the most healing part of their treatment," Rohyans Stewart said.
The camp is the first of its kind to be hosted in an urban environment and will be used as a model to replicate the program in other cities, including New York, Los Angeles and London, said Dave Smith, president of the Children's Oncology Camping Association, who is on-site at the Downtown camp this week to help out and observe.
Camp Kids Are Kids Chicago was founded in July 2013 by Chicagoan Blaine Blanchard, who said he promised himself and his family when he beat thyroid cancer 12 years ago that he would find a way to give back.
It's a revolutionary idea that could make the camp experience more available to hundreds of kids in the Chicago area facing cancer, many of whom are too sick to make the trek hours outside the city to a traditional, rural camp environment.
"It's tapping into a niche of kids who can't travel that far to get to a camp," said Dave Caterino, the camp director, who partnered with Blanchard to plan the camp after the pair met in Idaho. The nearest pediatric oncology camp in Illinois is a three-hour drive from Chicago, Caterino said.
"When your child gets cancer, you become like a mother hawk protecting her babies," Caterino said. "You're not going to want to send them three hours away. [But] they need to get back to 'Let's let this kid have some of his autonomy back.'
"As much as the chemotherapy cures their illness, the resocialization that helps them find their place, and know it's OK to have a scar, or a bald head, or a missing limb" among their friends at camp is an important element of treatment, Caterino said.
Teen camper Sami, in the older girls' group at Camp Kids Are Kids, agrees.
"We all share common experiences, so I think in a sense we all feel more open to talk about what happened to us," she said. "With friends at home, it's harder to talk about, because they just don't understand. They don't always understand that this actually happened to us."
Blanchard says the whole operation cost nearly a half-million dollars and was funded entirely by donations, from the Ritz-Carlton location, free breakfasts and digital cameras given to each camper to the time and labor of dozens of volunteers helping to run the five-day camp's activities.
Tom Segesta, general manager at the Ritz-Carlton and an early partner in the development process, "bent over backwards and probably broke a few rules" to transform a floor of the Streeterville hotel for the camp's use, Caterino said.
Beds were rolled out, and bunk beds swapped into the suites being used as cabins. Elsewhere on the floor are activity rooms, including an arts and crafts station and game area, plus two rooms reserved for medical needs staffed around the clock with a nursing team.
The campers plan to thank Segesta and the hotel by "love bombing" his office with heart-shaped decorations later this week, Caterino said.
Next year, they hope to expand the program in Chicago to serve more kids. Blanchard said they're exploring partnerships with national nonprofits and area hospitals to grow next year's Chicago camp and expand the model into other cities.
"This is the first time we've seen somebody try something like this in a city," said Smith, head of the international kids' cancer camp organization. "It looks like something we could definitely replicate in other cities."
Blanchard said that the year he's spent putting Camp Kids Are Kids Chicago together has been the most meaningful of his life.
"I became the CEO of a major, global corporation at 42," he said. "But nothing has been more fulfilling than this."
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