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Camp Fantastic celebrates 30-year anniversary

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Lily Miller goes through the lunch line at Camp Fantastic. Rich Cooley/Daily

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Sofia Cirie, 9, of Baltimore, left, and Lily Miller, 8, right, of Star Tannery, find a box turtle during the Creek Critters segment at Camp Fantastic at at the Northern Virginia 4-H Education Center in Front Royal on Thursday. Camp Fantastic is a week long camp for kids with cancer who are too sick for traditional summer camps. Rich Cooley/Daily

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Lily Miller, 8, of Star Tannery gets a close-up view of a box turtle during the Creek Critters segment Thursday at Camp Fantastic at the Northern Virginia 4-H Education Center in Front Royal. Camp Fantastic is a week long camp for kids with cancer who are too sick for traditional summer camps. Rich Cooley/Daily

By Kim Walter -- kwalter@nvdaily.com

On Thursday morning, 8-year-old Lily Miller only had one thing on her mind: catching creek critters.

"I got a giant one! Oh, he's a jumper, he's a jumper," Lily exclaimed after sifting through her net to find one decently sized, squirming minnow.

Lily, of Star Tannery, was proud of her findings that day, which consisted of small fish, tadpoles and a turtle. The activity was one of many she participated in this week at Camp Fantastic, held at the Northern Virginia 4-H Educational Center in Front Royal.

While at first glance the camp appears like any other summer getaway for youngsters, it becomes apparent that something is different when campers line up for medications and check-ins before each meal.

Founded in 1983 by Tom and Sheila Baker, who lost their daughter Julie to cancer in 1976, Camp Fantastic gives a typical summer experience to children ages 7 to 17 who have cancer or have undergone treatment within the past three years.

In April 2011, Lily was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia, a common childhood cancer of the blood and bone marrow. This particular type of cancer once had a 60 percent survival rate, but after technology and treatments improved, the rate is up to 85 to 88 percent.

Now over a year later, Lily is in the maintenance phase of her treatment, and was happy to say that she was done with pills for the week on Thursday.

She was excited about something else, too.

"I'll be sad when it's over, but I'm guaranteed a spot next year, so I'm definitely doing this again," she said.

Lily has stayed busy this week at the pool, learning how to ride horses and meeting new friends. She said she's particularly happy with her counselors because "they let us have dance parties all the time."

David Smith, CEO of Special Love, the nonprofit that puts Camp Fantastic on, was a 4-H counselor the first year of the camp. He continued in that position for the first five years, but when a new director was needed for Special Love, he decided to take it.

"That first year there were 29 campers and we were totally overstaffed, which was fine because we were petrified," he said. "This year we have 112 campers which is a new record, by far, and for each counselor we basically have two children."

The medical staff consists of doctors and nurses associated with the National Institute of Health and the National Cancer Institute. The other half of the staff is made up of volunteers from outside agencies, according to camp medical coordinator Tammy Jenkins. Through the course of the week, about 50 medical staff members will have come through camp.

"What always puts me in awe is that a lot of my staff are here as a part of their normal job, but they really are giving their own time because this is not an eight hour day by any stretch of the imagination," she said. "The volunteers are taking a week of their vacation time to come to camp, and they're happy to do that."

Not only do campers check in with the medical staff four times a day for routine medications, but they can receive treatments like chemotherapy or blood products on site, Jenkins said. These more intense treatments are scheduled around the individual's day, something that brings comfort to parents of campers. The camp also has partnerships with local EMS, medical helicopters and other health professionals.

"They're on-call for us all week," Jenkins said.

The campers mostly come from a four-hour radius, and arrived on Sunday and will leave Saturday morning, Smith said. A good number of them are repeat campers, and about a third of them come back as survivors and counselors.

"Most of them have no problem adjusting from 'it's all about me' to 'it's all about these kids,' because then their cancer experience comes full circle," Smith said of the counselors who are also cancer survivors. "Then they feel like it all counts for something."

While there's no scheduled therapy sessions for counselors, Smith said many discussions happen between campers, especially when they share a type of cancer or experience.

"It's just as important to put cancer aside for the week as it is for them to find out about it," Smith said.

Lily agreed, and said it's easy to get along with fellow campers.

"At camp there's more people that pretty much have the same thing going on that I do," she said. "But everybody's really happy here."

For more information on Camp Fantastic or Special Love, search them on Facebook or go to speciallove.org.

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