I’ve been asked to write about Camp Ukandu, what it is and what it means to the kids we serve and to the staff who participate. It would take me pages to write everything, so I will tell you in no uncertain terms that Camp Ukandu is an amazing, outrageous, fun-filled week for kids with, or who have had, cancer and their siblings.
The mission of Camp Ukandu is to provide a safe and secure environment in which children living with cancer can, through a week of “outrageously fun” camping activities, have happy childhood experiences that may have been missed due to time spent dealing with cancer and its treatment. This mission recognizes that cancer affects the whole family; siblings and parents also have a need for some respite from the extraordinary demands and challenges posed by the disease.
The purpose of Camp Ukandu is to offer a planned week of camping activities designed for children ages 8 through 17 (or senior year of high school) living with cancer (patients and siblings). It provides opportunities for outdoor play, socialization with other children in similar circumstances, and the exploration and use of individual talents and strengths – all with careful supervision by medical specialists and trained adult volunteers.
There are no set “standards of achievement.” Each child is accepted as a unique individual and is encouraged to participate at a level comfortable to them. Helping each child feel safe and secure is a top priority. Camp Ukandu recognizes the “long-term” survivor and helps these children prepare to move into other camping experiences.
Camp Ukandu was established 27 years ago by a group of volunteers and Dr. Robert Neerhout, who was the head of Pediatric Oncology at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital at the time. Dr. David Tilford, an OHSU Doernbecher pediatric oncologist, started volunteering at camp the following year in 1987 and has been a volunteer at camp ever since. Dr. Sue Lindemulder has been our medical director now for the past three years. Over the years, camp medical staff has comprised doctors, fellows, nurses, social workers and pharmacists from both OHSU Doernbecher and Randall Children’s Hospital.
I began as a camp counselor in 2000, and after two years started coming as a nurse in the health house. For the last 10 years, I have volunteered as the medical coordinator and head nurse for the week. After my first year, I was hooked. This place called “Camp Ukandu” was magical. At camp, the same kids I give chemo to, make cry, are sick and in pain, are seen laughing, running and playing. At camp, they just get to be kids. Every year I am amazed at how much I look forward to camp where I, along with my colleagues, get a chance to be part of such an amazing week where stories are told for the next year during clinic visits and inpatient stays.
For the past 27 years, Camp Ukandu has provided one week of camp free of charge to roughly 120 kids every year. Camp has grown as have the number of volunteer staff. Since its inception, volunteer staff from as far away as Washington, D.C., and a number of from out of the country have participated in Camp Ukandu. Many of our volunteer staff members are past campers. They loved camp so much that they come back as counselors and staff.
For the medical staff, this is an opportunity to get to know these kids as kids and not just as kids with cancer. Activities include rock wall climbing, high ropes course, horseback riding, archery, swimming, arts and crafts, science experiments, games, singing, skits, camp fires, a dance, beauty parlor, memory circle and a time of remembrance for those no longer with us.
This is also an opportunity for kids to meet and talk with other kids dealing with the same issues, and a chance to meet counselors that once had cancer and are now survivors — their hope for the future.
The following paragraph is excerpted from a letter sent to a parent during camp. It sums up just how amazing this camp is and why we do what we do at camp:
“At Camp Ukandu I learned I wasn’t the only one who spent their days in a wheelchair. I learned I wasn’t the only one who missed an entire year of school. I learned I wasn’t the only one who had to relearn how to do everyday things. I learned I wasn’t the only one who had trouble with their memory. I realized I wasn’t as alone as I thought. I learned that our lives may have been shattered, but together we can put the pieces back together again, because of something we all needed to learn. We are not alone.”
Rae Acosta, R.N., C.P.O.N. (camp name “Elmo”)
Research Nurse Coordinator
Division of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology
OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital