Camp Fantastic provides kids with cancer a fun outdoor experience

Gabriel, 11, left, and Max, 10, right, play a game of rock-paper-scissors during the 36th annual Camp Fantastic held at the Northern Virginia 4-H Educational Center in Front Royal last week. Rich Cooley/Daily

FRONT ROYAL – After 36 years, Camp Fantastic still knows how to work its magic on the children who attend it.

Held every year at the Northern Virginia 4-H Educational Center in Front Royal, the camp welcomes children ages 7 to 17 who are being treated for cancer or who have been in remission for up to three years to a week-long summer outing. The camp is open to kids from around the country.

Camp Fantastic is one of more than a dozen programs run by Special Love, a nonprofit organization started in 1983 by the late Tom and Shelia Baker after they lost their daughter Julie to lymphoma in 1979. The organization also provides emergency financial relief and postsecondary education scholarships to kids and families who are struggling.

David Smith, who is the senior director of outreach and programs for Special Love, started out as a counselor for Camp Fantastic in its first year and his love for the organization’s cause has continued to grow ever since. 

“The kids and the counselors have not only energy but compassion,” Smith said. “To see how many different groups, donors and kids come together for one cause, it really does reaffirm your humanity and it makes you realize there are a lot of good people in the world.”

Emma, 17, holds Bryant, 7, as the pair simulate a shark bite during the 36th annual Camp Fantastic held at the Northern Virginia 4-H Educational Center in Front Royal last week. Rich Cooley/Daily

Jan Bresch, who recently took the job as the executive director of Special Love and has served on the organization’s board for six years, says her new position with Special Love has given her a new perspective on the good work that places like Camp Fantastic do.

“Being on the board, you think you know what the camps really provide,” Bresch said. “You come out here and see you actually have no clue the comfort and the community this camp is.”

When Camp Fantastic started, 29 children attended the first year. This year, 108 kids attended the camp. One of the kids, 13-year-old Sam, who is facing a leukemia diagnosis, enjoyed his first year at Camp Fantastic.

“I have never been away from home for this long before,” Sam said. “I want to come back next year.”

Eight-year-old Ivory, who is also battling leukemia, said he loved his first year at the camp.

Ivory, 8, is all smiles on his first visit to Camp Fantastic held last week. Rich Cooley/Daily

“I love it because of all of the friends I made,” Ivory said.

The daily schedule for Camp Fantastic includes activities like swimming, fishing, crafts, and sports, tailored to each camper’s ability. Nine-year-old Kaylee, who has neuroblastoma, a cancer found in nerve cells, wouldn’t let her illness keep her away from her second year at camp.

“I liked when we sang and cooked,” Kaylee said. “My favorite song to sing was the “Roll-Over” song.

Eight-year-old Trevor, who is also facing a neuroblastoma diagnosis, said woodworking class was his favorite thing to do at camp.

“I like building things,” Trevor said. “I want to be an engineer when I grow up.”

Aaliyah, 11, takes a taste of icing as she constructs a graham cracker house during Camp Fantastic this week. Rich Cooley/Daily

The week led up to the very popular talent show on Thursday night, which sees the kids perform and the return of acts from previous years. Sam took part in the talent show by solving a Rubik’s Cube in 90 seconds, while Kaylee performed “Stand by Me” on her ukulele. 

An important cog in the camp experience is the volunteers. At this year’s Camp Fantastic, 60 volunteers spent the week helping the kids. One of them, Rocky Yost of Winchester, said he loved helping out, even if it’s a little hard to keep up with the kids at times.

“It’s like an 18-hour pep rally every day,” Yost said.

Sam said he appreciates the counselors because they make the kids feel like equals.

“They treat us like peers,” Sam said.

One of the distinctive aspects of the Special Love camps is former camp attendees who give back to the organization. Julia Jones of Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, who was diagnosed with Wilms tumor when she was six, started at Camp Fantastic after she went into remission in 1997 and has been attached to Special Love ever since.

“I was still involved in the family weekends since my brothers went to Brass Camp for a very long time, so it was just a natural progression of me to volunteer here,” Jones said. “This is family to me, so it was just natural to volunteer my time and continuing to give back to an organization who gave so much.”

Camp Fantastic provides on-site care for children throughout the week with care workers from the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. Around 30 percent of the children who attend the camp remain in treatment, whether it’s chemotherapy, blood counts, routine medications, or regular monitoring. Robin Couch Cardillo, who has been with Special Love since 2013 and serves as director of development said that if the kids have any problems, they’ll get the best care.

“We’re well equipped to handle things here,” Cardillo said.

Even though Special Love and places like Camp Fantastic have been around for nearly four decades, Bresch feels that the organization is still a well-kept secret.

“People don’t know who Special Love is and where they are,” Bresch said. “We’re a very well-kept secret that’s doing a tremendous amount of good for children with cancer and their families.”

Smith hopes that Special Love will continue to grow as more people become more aware of the organization and the support it provides.

“These are families and kids who are going through a very difficult time right now,” Smith said. “Sometimes all they really need is to meet someone who has been through it already to not only get the resources they got but the motivation to keep going.”

For more information on Camp Fantastic or Special Love, visit specialove.org.