FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
James R. McCauley, Jr.
Camp Good Days
Suzanne Hopkins Bixby
Campground Owners of New York
(585) 586-4360, Ext. 3
MENDON, New York, March 30, 2021 — The official tagline for Disneyland is “the happiest place on Earth.”
But for the many men, women and children from across New York, across the country and around the world whose lives have been touched by cancer, Camp Good Days is the closest thing to paradise.
Its programs, all of which are provided free of charge thanks to the generous donations of the camp’s sponsors, offer an escape from the daily physical, psychological and emotional trauma that comes from either having a life-threatening disease or having a sibling or parent die from it.
“Cancer is an insidious disease,” said James R. McCauley, Jr., Camp Good Days’ director of community initiatives. “It takes you piece by piece. You can’t walk. Then you can’t see. Then you can’t hear. Then you die.”
No one understands the agonizing trauma of cancer and the value of Camp Good Days more than Kim Winter of Rochester, whose 11-year-old son, Craig, has been going to Camp Good Days since age 4, when he started attending the camp’s special events and day programs.
Winter remembers the traumatic days before Craig was diagnosed with brain and spinal cord cancer at age 2. Craig was a bundle of energy at first, she said, the kind of kid who “bounced off the wall.” Then the trouble began.
“I got a call from our daycare provider one day saying he wouldn’t get up from his nap,” she said. Over the following days and weeks, Winter knew there was something seriously wrong with her son. “You could just kind of see the life coming out of him,” she said.
Doctors ran a CT-scan and found Craig had a tiny cyst in his brain, which they removed. Craig started getting better. But then he started to complain of head pain. Doctors then ran an MRI and found he had tumors all over his spine. “The doctors couldn’t believe he could even walk,” Winter said.
Craig has since gone through a series of chemotherapy treatments in addition to participating in a clinical trial for an experimental drug which proved to be too toxic for Craig to endure. But Craig’s tumors have been reduced and his condition has been stable for the past year.
“He looks fantastic right now,” Winter said, adding that the friends he has made at Camp Good Days have become an integral part of his life and his support system beyond her family. “Camp Good Days is Craig’s number one outlet for a sense of belonging and normalcy. It’s a place where he can just be a kid,” she said.
Many of the kids at Camp Good Days arrive in wheelchairs, have scars, are missing limbs, or have white hair or no hair at all as a result of their cancer treatments — all of which can make them feel isolated from other kids their age.
“There’s nothing worse than seeing your child feel lonely,” Winter said. “The emotional toll this takes on children far outweighs the physical toll.”
At Camp Good Days, however, children with cancer can escape their ever-present reality of having a terminal illness. “These kids don’t feel different there,” Winter said. “They are just like every other kid there. It just takes that weight off of them. There is no other way to replicate that environment for a child who has walked in those shoes.”
Camp Good Days organizes special events as well as weeklong cancer camps at the organization’s campground at Keuka Lake in Branchport. Activities include sporting events, concerts, fishing and laser tag. In addition to offering cancer camps for children with cancer, Camp Good Days organizes special camps for brothers and sisters of children with cancer.
“It’s just for siblings,” Winter said, adding that her two daughters, ages 6 and 9, have found the sibling camp worthwhile because it gives them a peer group of other siblings who have experienced the same trauma as well as the inevitable lack of attention that comes from having a sibling with cancer.
Special camps are also available for adults with specific conditions, such as women’s oncology camps and prostate cancer camps for men. “We even have a special camp for kids with cancer from overseas, which we call ‘Doing a World of Good,’” McCauley said.
Winter said she was initially nervous about sending Craig to Camp Good Days, where he would be out of her sight for a week. But camp counselors sent her frequent text messages, letting her know he was fine and having a good time.
“I knew he had a good time,” Kim said, “because when he came back, he didn’t want to get off the bus. He slumped down in his seat. He didn’t want to leave. He normally was stuck to my side all the time.”
McCauley, who has worked with Camp Good Days for 32 years, said the nonprofit camp creates a special emotional bond for camp participants.
“These kids come here to have a good time, to have nice conservations and just put their thoughts about mortality aside,” McCauley said. “At the end of the week, we share our experiences with one another. There’s not a dry eye in the place. I’ve never met a child that was ready to go home.”
The bonding that takes place between participants and with the camp counselors, most of whom are cancer survivors themselves, leads to enduring friendships that provide support and stability to Camp Good Days participants as they struggle with a deadly disease.
“It’s amazing to see Craig being able to connect with other kids who have cancer,” Kim said.
Camp Good Days also offers camps for children who have lost a parent to cancer, like the children of Shawn Daoust of Clarence Center, near Buffalo, who died in 2017 of an aggressive form of lung cancer at 35.
“We discovered my husband had cancer on Christmas of 2015,” Susan Daoust recalled. “My kids had gotten up early and snuck into the living room to find their stockings. Instead, they found their father collapsed on the floor.”
The Daoust family spent the next two years taking Shawn for treatment until he ultimately succumbed to the disease. Daoust said Camp Good Days’ camps for children of cancer victims has enabled her son, Connor, and daughter, Madison, to find comfort and bonding with others who know exactly what they’re experiencing.
“When you’re 11 years old and you lose your parent, it’s so devastating,” Daoust said. “None of your friends know what you’re going through.”
Camp Good Days, however, can help fill this emotional void and provides support for these unique they cannot find anywhere else. “My children, unfortunately, have a group of friends in which other children their age have lost their mother or father to cancer,” Daoust said.
Most of Camp Good Days’ counselors are cancer survivors themselves. Nineteen-year-old Cole Parker, a student at Binghamton University, is one of them.
Parker was born with bilateral retinoblastoma, a form of cancer that starts in the eyes. “I started getting treatment as it was progressing close to my retinal chord,” he said, adding, “It could have gone to my brain.”
Doctors ended up removing Parker’s left eye before his second birthday, and he continued to receive treatment throughout his childhood. He started going to Camp Good Days at the age of 5 and continued until he was 15.
“Camp Good Days has done so much for me,” he said. “It always felt like the happiest place on Earth, and they offer it for free. It’s incredible that they do this.”
Parker volunteered at Camp Good Days last summer. But even though last summer’s in-person camps were cancelled due to COVID-19 pandemic, he still volunteered throughout the summer to help with maintenance.
“I just wanted to give back in whatever way I could,” he said.
While in-person camps have been temporarily suspended during the pandemic, Camp Good Days has still organized Zoom calls and periodic outdoor events to keep camp participants in touch with each other.
One camp counselor recently visited Craig at the Winter’s home. “The camp counselor brought over a puppy, just to keep in touch with the kids. They know how hard it is for these kids not to be together,” Winter said.
Camp Good Days hopes to resume regular camp sessions later this year.
Camp Good Days is fully supported through donations, including nearly $1 million in donations raised by private campground operators affiliated with Campground Owners of New York, which hosts CampNewYork.com, the travel planning website.
For more information about Camp Good Days, please visit its website at CampGoodDays.org.