Kids With Cancer Go To Camp A Week Together For Students Isolated By Disease

Published: Miami Herald Sunday Final Edition
Date: July 18, 1999

Anthony Hernandez, who will enter Coral Reef High School in the fall, has leukemia. In less than three years, he has been hospitalized more than 20 times, many involving stays in the intensive care units.

Classmates at Cutler Ridge Christian Academy, where he just graduated, often flooded him with questions: “When are you going to finish [chemotherapy treatments]?” “How long have you been going through this?

“To which the 14-year-old replied: “I don’t know and since Nov. 20, 1996.” That’s the day he was diagnosed with leukemia – a form of cancer that impairs the production of blood cells.

For the next week, however, no one will quiz Anthony about his problems. He’ll be surrounded by kids who understand, because they are fighting similar battles of their own.

For the second consecutive year, he’ll attend the American Cancer Society’s ROCK (Reaching out to Kids with Cancer) Boggy Creek Gang Camp near Orlando. About 140 cancer patients, ages 7 to 17, are expected.

“The kids at camp, they don’t really ask many questions because they’ve gone through the same thing,” Anthony said.But they do share helpful hints.

Sharing support Chantelle Edge, 13, wore a T-shirt that read, “PAIN is temporary, PRIDE is forever” as she waited with about 30 kids from Miami-Dade County for the bus to camp. But as they mingled at the Winn-Dixie Hope Lodge behind the University of Miami’s Sylvester Cancer Treatment Center, she shared advice she often shares with new patients: “It will be over someday. Be strong.

“Like Anthony, Chantelle has been undergoing chemotherapy. She had a malignant tumor removed from her brain. Saturday morning, she was just looking forward to swimming in the camp’s Olympic-size pool, her favorite activity.

She had already forgotten about the light blue hat she was wearing to cover her temporarily hairless head.Except for nights in the hospital, this week will be the first time she has been away from her parents. She’s anything but scared.

“We know more about what we’ve been through,” Chantelle said of being with other kids with cancer.‚Ä®Many parents hugged and coached their kids on doing the right thing.

Ellie Hernandez reminded her son Anthony to read Alas Babylon. Pat Frank’s book is on his summer reading list.

A few minutes later, everyone was waving as the bus left.Boggy Creek is staffed with two pediatric oncologists, two emergency room doctors, a pediatrician, 10 nurses, 42 volunteers from the American Cancer Society and 78 full-time counselors.

The 232-acre camp was founded in 1996, when actor Paul Newman, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf and the late Gov. Lawton Chiles teamed up with several of Florida’s influential families to build a retreat for chronically ill children.

Activities include horseback riding, wood-shop, arts and crafts and paddle boats.

The American Cancer Society’s Winn-Dixie Hope Lodge picks up the tab for the summer escapes for the South Florida kids.Before Boggy Creek opened, kids were taken to camps in different parts of Florida. More than 4,000 Florida youth have participated in the program.

As their children left, some parents began releasing tears they have fought to hold back.

In a crackling voice, Diana Vengoechea told of moving to Miami from Colombia two years ago, after her 12-year-old son Edgardo was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor.

“All last night he kept telling me he was afraid,” Vengoechea said. “I am also afraid. I know he’s in good hands, but I worry.”

But not all the goodbyes are painful.

Maya Thornell, spokeswoman for the American Cancer Society, said moms and dads appreciate the time to themselves, and their other children.

“Most parents look forward to it,” Thornell said. “It’s a time parents can take a break and let their kids be kids.”