35th Camp Fantastic underway at 4-H Center

The Warren Sentinel

FRONT ROYAL — Camp Fantastic is just like any other camp, with several kids standing along the bank of a lake at the Northern Virginia 4-H Education Center Tuesday casting their lines in the fishing derby.

The one difference between this camp and the usual summer getaway is that every attendee is a cancer patient.

Even though five-year Camp Fantastic veteran Tara has not yet had any bites, she was "still having fun" and fishing remained her favorite activity of the week.

Although Tara said some of her camp pals have died, she loves coming back to see old friends and make new ones because everyone is "fun and generous."

Besides fishing, one aspect of camp that Tara adores is being with kids who share similar experiences. She particularly enjoys helping newcomers acclimate.

"They are missing their family," she said of first-year campers. "But there's so many fun things to do that you don't need to worry about it because you're in good hands. You don't need to worry about your treatment or anything, just have fun."

Arlington native, 12-year-old Kate, is one of the campers Tara is helping to adjust. So far, Kate said she ìlikes everythingî about the camp and hopes to come again.

Camp Fantastic was founded in 1983 by Winchester residents Tom and Sheila Baker. Six years prior to the first camp, they lost their 13-year-old daughter Julie to lymphoma. Tom Baker said the camp has helped them overcome the grief of losing a child and they "get more out of it than we've ever given."

He said the camp is an opportunity for kids who have been with their parents for nine months straight to gain a sense of independence. It also provides an opportunity their daughter never had, to be around other kids with cancer.

The campers love the experience so much, many become counselors. About a third of this year's counselors were former campers, he said.

Jarvis Kuo, 42, of Norfolk, is one of those campers who has returned as a counselor. His first year at camp was as a 10-year-old in 1986. His right leg was amputated as a result of bone cancer complications. He said he always felt at home during camp.

"I am always grateful to give back," Kuo said. "When I was a camper, they brought me out of my shell. They said, 'it is OK, you are no different than anybody else even though you only have one leg.'"

He hopes to convey the feeling of camp being a safe place and that everyone is family. He will keep coming back "as long as my body can handle all these kids."

Kuo once counseled Sean Ngo, who returned this year as a first-time counselor. Ngo was diagnosed with non-Hodgkinís lymphoma in his femur the day before his 13th birthday.

Ngo, now 20 and cancer free, always knew he would come back as a counselor because he just "loves this place."

Camp Fantastic is one of more than a dozen programs sponsored by the Bakersí Special Love Inc. charity.

A total of 108 kids are attending this yearís camp, Special Love Director of Development Robin Cardillo said. Day-to-day activities include swimming, fishing, crafts, a virtual reality gaming console and woodworking. Campers can also build and operate a potato cannon during the Weird Science segment.

The camp is complete with an infirmary provided by the National Institute of Health that provides chemotherapy, blood counts and other medical needs.

This yearís theme is ìCamp Fantastic Studiosî and centers around movies. Nights are dedicated to different genres such as sports, superheroes, Harry Potter and Beauty and the Beast.

"If you've been here, you can't explain it. If you haven't been here, you can't understand it," incoming president of the Special Love Board of Directors John Taylor said.

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