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Couple's program founded after they lost 13-year-old daughter to cancer

By M.K. Luther - mkluther@nvdaily.com

fantastic 8-20-9 horse ride.jpg
Eden Slomon, 16, of Maryland, is helped onto a horse for the second time in her life by Kate Stokely Powell, left, and Ann Turner at Camp Fantastic. Dennis Grundman/Daily

Ronnaysha Barnes, 9, of Norfolk, dolls up at boutique class at Camp Fantastic. Dennis Grundman/Daily

After going to class for dressing up, some of the girls at Camp Fantastic pose for glamour shots. Dennis Grundman/Daily

Nesma Aly, 10 of Bethesda, Md., works on the newspaper for Camp Fantastic. Dennis Grundman/Daily

FRONT ROYAL -- For the past 27 years, at the end of summer, children have flocked to the Northern Virginia 4-H Center outside of Front Royal for camp.

Despite the standard fare of horseback riding, canoeing, and arts and crafts classes, this is not an average summer camp -- all of the 103 children at Camp Fantastic are cancer patients.

Camp Fantastic was founded by Winchester native Tom Baker and his wife, Sheila, after losing their 13-year-old daughter to cancer. Taking inspiration from a similar camp in upstate New York, Baker worked with the National Institutes of Health and the 4-H Center to create a local camp for children between the ages of 7 and 17 who have been diagnosed with cancer.

"When we went through it, there wasn't really much, or any, support for families," Baker said.

The original program has expanded and now has additional offerings and weekend camps for parents, siblings and friends of children with cancer.

"When a person in the family has cancer, the family has cancer too," Baker said.

The children bunk in the 4-H Center lodges for the week, spending their days playing, doing outdoor activities like tennis and swimming or taking cooking or crafts classes. The camp puts on a Glamour Institute that allows campers to attend their own beauty spa for an hour and offers full facials and pedicures.

For many of the children, the camp offers a chance to participate in sports and outdoor activities that they no longer can at school or at home.

"A lot of them don't have any opportunity to have an experience like this," said Lori Cordova, a volunteer counselor from Richmond who runs the horseback riding class.

The physical activity of horseback riding is in and of itself physical therapy for the children, Cordova said. The riding helps children who have difficulty with balance and allows them to stretch certain muscles. The children also connect with the animals during the class, Cordova said.

The children can forge almost unbreakable bonds during the camp session -- many of the campers return each summer to reunite with their friends and about half of the camp counselors are former campers and cancer survivors.

Camp Fantastic can handle children in various stages of the disease or treatment, camp director Dave Smith said. The facility has an infirmary, treatment area and fully staffed clinic with a doctor. In all, of the more than 60-member camp staff, about 24 are medical professionals, Smith said.

"The kids can get just about anything they are getting at their hospital," Smith said.

Camp Fantastic depends on word-of-mouth recommendations, Smith said, as well as relationships with oncology units around the region to make families sure people know about the camp.

"My brother had cancer and came here and told me about it," said 8-year-old Sydney Harris, of Yorktown. "I was excited to come here and now I am here and having a great time, but it would have been better if my brother had been here."

For more information, visit www.speciallove.org

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