On the rugby field for Franklin County Crimson, A.J. Purdy of Stony Hill is a tough competitor.
“I’m a prop,” he said, which basically means, “I’m one of the big guys on the field.”
But at Camp Quality, everyone agrees that Purdy’s more of a big softy (although his muscles do come in handy for helping to set up the hot air balloon rides).
Purdy is one of dozens of volunteers who make Camp Quality possible each year. He’s been volunteering for five years now and doesn’t ever plan to stop.
“It’s uplifting,” he said. “It makes you smile.”
Other volunteers at this annual camp for children diagnosed with cancer and their siblings said the same thing.
Laura Kenny, one of the Washington Town and Country Fair Queen contestants, said she heard about Camp Quality from a sorority friend at Truman State University, where she’ll be a junior this fall. She signed up to volunteer expecting she would be needed to help the kids stay positive.
“I went into it thinking, ‘I’ll be there for these kids to help them have a great time,’ but I realize now they’ve offered me a more rewarding and eye-opening experience,” said Kenny.
She already plans to come back as a volunteer next year. That’s a common reaction among volunteers.
Niki Buschmann, a Hermann High School science teacher who has been volunteering here for 19 years and who has recruited many of the current volunteers, said one reason Camp Quality is so addicting is the campers’ enthusiasm and love of life.
“It’s not about cancer while they’re here. It’s about fun,” she said. “The kids talk about this all year long.”
Purdy said the reward for him are the smiles on the campers’ faces.
“I like spending time with the kids, making them happy, smile,” he said. “Our motto is ‘Letting kids with cancer be kids again.’ ”
“Everybody here has the same mentality,” said Casey Bucher, co-director. “It’s all lighthearted.”
For Any Child 4-17 Diagnosed With Cancer
Held on the grounds of Camp Woodland Hills, a 160-acre site in St. Clair owned by Community of Christ Church, Gateway USA Mission Center, in St. Louis, Camp Quality Central Missouri is offered every June for children ages 4 to 17 who have been diagnosed with cancer and their siblings.
“A few are on treatment currently,” said Bucher. “A few are in remission or are out (of treatment) and a few are siblings.”
The fact that campers can bring a sibling makes many hesitant campers (or their parents) feel more comfortable about attending, said Bucher.
“You can see the difference in the transition as the week goes on,” she remarked.
There are two full-time registered nurses on the grounds who can arrange blood draws and even administer chemotherapy treatments to those who need it, as well as a medical coordinator from the University of Missouri Women and Children’s Medical Center in Columbia.
The medical staff is available to provide care at all times, and all campers are paired with a volunteer companion, like Purdy and Kenny.
While at other summer camps, a child diagnosed with cancer might be considered fragile or singled out for special attention, at Camp Quality, all of the campers are just kids, said Bucher.
And while the kids might be self-conscious of surgery scars or other visible signs of their cancer treatments around children who haven’t experienced those things, here at Camp Quality they don’t have to worry about those things.
They do many of the same types of activities offered at traditional summer camps — swimming, games, sports, crafts — but they also have a few special events. This year, for example, campers were treated to hula lessons, motorcylce rides, presentations by an illusionist and a scientist and hot air balloon rides.
“We find something that everyone excels at or just likes to do,” said Co-Director Erin Carl, noting many parents have commented, “This is one place where our kids play sports.
“They get to excel at things here that they don’t feel comfortable doing at home or normally get to do.”
Some of the campers are more open about what they’ve been through than others, the volunteers said. Some talk about their experiences and others don’t.
100 Percent Volunteer, More Welcome
All of the people who work and run Camp Quality are volunteers, said Bucher. Even the cooks who provide the group three meals a day are volunteers.
That’s one of the ways the camp is able to be offered free of charge for all the children, said Bucher, noting Camp Quality is funded by donations, special events and grants.
This year 38 campers were able to attend.
“We’re limited only by funding and volunteers,” said Bucher.
Quite a few of the campers return each year with one or two new ones being added. If there would ever be a problem with more campers applying to attend than there was funding or volunteers for, priority goes to newly diagnosed campers, said Bucher.
For one girl, this was her 14th year at Camp Quality, although today she is no longer a camper, but a volunteer companion.
Campers are all paired with a volunteer companion for the week, typically it’s always a one-to-one ratio, said Bucher.
Often, returning campers and volunteer companions are paired up year after year, which makes for a strong bond. Even after just one week together at camp can be enough to make the two close.
“They’re like one soul,” Bucher remarked.
“The camper has the undivided attention of their companion,” Carl added.
Volunteers are paired up with campers based on likes and interests. Purdy, for example, will always be paired with a camper who is active, whereas other volunteers would be paired with campers who prefer crafts.
The role of the companion is to be a source of strength and encouragement for the camper.
“They see each other once a year, yet they get so close that it’s just fun to be around each other, but at the same time they (the companions) try to stand back and encourage (their campers) to succeed,” said Bucher.
More volunteers for Camp Quality are always welcome. Volunteers have to be 18 years or older, pass a background check and attend a day of training.
More than one of the volunteer companions are former campers, like Jacqueline Wheeler of Lancaster. She’s now 20, but she first came to Camp Quality as a 7-year-old with ALL leukemia.
“This is my 13th year,” she told The Missourian. “I only missed one year because of a relapse.”
The first year Wheeler attended camp she was on treatment and didn’t have any hair. What she loved about camp, she said, were the activities, like Irish dancing, the food, but most of all, her volunteer companion and the friends she made.
Wheeler is now an art major at Truman State University studying visual communication. Her plans are to work in graphic design, eventually opening her own studio.
In addition to being an excellent opportunity for growth and independence for the campers each year, Camp Quality offers a nice respite for the campers’ parents, said Carl.
“They know the kids want to be here, that they’re in good hands, so this time is like a vacation for them (the parents),” she said.
And best of all, it’s 100 percent free.
“A lot of our families don’t have the financial ability to send their kids to another camp,” said Buschmann.
Donations to Camp Quality are accepted all year long and can be made online through its website, www.campqualityusa.org. There’s also a section with information about holding a fund-raiser.
“In order for us to continue to have this each year, we need to get the word out for funding and volunteers,” Bucher remarked.