Thursday, November 2, 2017

A Fall Season Update

As we enter the month of November, there is so much happening, that I thought I would take a moment to share with you some updates through my blog since I don’t have a Facebook. 

As of this past October 1st, Camp Good Days began its 39th year of providing programs and services to children and families touched by cancer and sickle cell anemia.  One thing that I am very proud of is that volunteers are still the backbone of Camp Good Days, just like they were in the beginning.  Without all of these amazing people, there would be no Camp Good Days.  I am very blessed to have volunteers like Mike Falvo, Kathy Murphy, and Michelle Roach who have been here since Camp Good Days’ inception.  There were two promises I made when I started Camp Good Days: one was that I didn’t want Camp Good Days to be a bureaucracy, I wanted it to be a non-profit that made a real difference in people’s lives.  The second was that I wanted no family struggling with the question of “why did my loved one get diagnosed with cancer?” to then have to go through the financial anxiety of figuring out whether they could afford to send their child to camp while trying to make the rent or car payment on time.  Even if these families have good health insurance and both parents, which is not always the case, usually it is the mom who will put her career on hold to stay at home with the child or loved one, and so the family income will drop but the mortgage or rent payment will stay the same.  The families will be forced to dip into their savings, and then once that is exhausted, the only alternative is bankruptcy.  I didn’t want that to be the case for our families, and so I made the promise that all of our programs and services would be provided free of charge to the participants.  I have only been able to keep this promise because of so many generous people in our community who believe in Camp Good Days’ mission and because of the success of our special fundraising events, the largest of which is our Finger Lakes International Wine Competition in combination with our Camp Good Days Wine Auction Dinner. 

October was when we had our first programs of our 39th year with our Annual Men’s Prostate Retreat and our Women’s Wellness Weekend.  Our Men’s Prostate Retreat is a wonderful program that continues to grow every year.  Once again this year, we had some of the very best physicians in the field of prostate cancer attend including Dr. Louis Eichel, the Chief of Urology at Rochester General Hospital, Dr. Jean Joseph, the Director of the Center for Robotic Surgery at the University of Rochester Medical Center, and Dr. Willie Underwood III, a Urologist at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.  Our Women’s Wellness Weekend also went great, and was very well attended with 50 women who participated.  The good Lord gave us beautiful weather, and I am always amazed to see the transformation of the women from when they arrive Friday evening to when they leave on Sunday morning. 



Next Wednesday, November 8, we are going to take our annual Fun Fest Trip to Orlando and Central Florida, where we take over 20 children with cancer or sickle cell anemia along with over 20 volunteers and staff who help to make each child’s experience one they will never forget.  It is an amazing thing to see a child take their first airplane ride, see the dolphins swim for the first time, or see Animal Kingdom and Universal Studios for the first time.  This trip is one of the highlights of the year for us at Camp Good Days and for the children who are able to go, and we are very excited for them to have this great experience.

We also have one of our most festive events coming up soon; the Annual Joe Benet Memorial Kazoo Fest, which will begin Black Friday and go until right before Christmas.  We are once again very thankful to have the support of JC Penney’s who allow us to set up tables in front of their mall locations at Greece Ridge, Eastview, and Marketplace malls here in Rochester.  So if you have the time while doing your holiday shopping, please stop by and say hello, and help support Camp Good Days by making a donation, or by buying a kazoo or candy cane pen.

There has been a big change in my personal life; after 27 years as an Assistant Football Coach at St. John Fisher College, Saturday, October 28 was my last home game with the team.  Even though the weather had turned to the typical Upstate New York fall weather of overcast, rainy, and cold, the team, despite their struggles this year, played to the best of their ability and wound up defeating Cortland State.  When I went home after the game, I couldn’t help but think back over the past 27 years about all of the young people who have played for me, and how each of them has touched my heart in a different way and left their impression on me.  I had a coach when I was younger who, when asked what kind of team he wanted, would say, “Ask me in 10 years and let me see what kind of young men these players become, and what kind of husbands and fathers they become.”  This idea of coaching is what I tried to base my coaching off of as well, and so I hope that in some small way, I have been able to touch their lives and help make them productive members of our society and good husbands and fathers. 

 

It is crazy to think that I have spent over a quarter of a century coaching at St. John Fisher, since it seems like yesterday that I started.  I think back to starting the Fellowship of Christian Athletes Huddle and being able to sponsor a number of football camps where I was able to bring in some great friends and professional players like Harvey Martin, Theo Bell, Tony Hill, Drew Pearson, Todd Lexer, and Steve Christie to name a few.  Most of all, I remember being so excited to take the idea of the Courage Bowl and make it a reality; where children of Camp Good Days who are battling cancer can serve as honorary coaches or cheerleaders.  It is crazy to think that this year was our thirteenth Courage Bowl.  It has been a good ride at Fisher, and I am happy that, over the years, I have been able to help make the Fisher football team one of the best Division 3 programs in the country.  I will always remember our 2006 season where we finished 4th in the country.  I have had the opportunity to coach with some great teachers and coaches over the years including Jim Schichetti, Rodger Bunce, Bud Sims, Mike Fox, Andy Hendall, Blaise Faggiano, and many great young coaches including Rob Kramer, Chris Keyes, and most of all, being able to build a strong relationship with Coach Paul Vosburgh, who when he first came aboard, asked what my plan was, and I had said that I was going to stick around to see us beat The College at Brockport and the University of Rochester, and I am pleased to say that we have been able to do that.  Ending my time with the Fisher football team is bittersweet, and I am so honored to have been able to spend my time with a great team, and some very amazing people.   

I hope that you all enjoyed my update, and I will end my blog by saying that I wish you and your family a very happy and blessed beginning to your upcoming holiday season.          

Monday, August 28, 2017

Winding Down Our 38th Summer

It is hard to believe that we are winding down our 38th summer at Camp Good Days, and while the weather could have been a little better, all of the programs ran very smoothly and the children had a wonderful time.  I had the chance to spend more time at camp this summer, especially the international program and Teddi’s Team.  I am needed there like another mosquito, but I love going to camp.  I feel like a proud grandpa seeing the interactions between everyone at camp; especially during the international program where, even though some of the staff, volunteers, and campers may not speak the same language, they still find ways to have fun together.  I feel that this summer, our summer staff was exceptional.

It is nice to think that in a world that continues to change, Camp Good Days has stayed the same, and has stayed true to its promise that no family dealing with cancer has had to ask the question of “can I let my child or loved one go to camp and still make my payments on time?”  All of our programs and services are still being provided free of charge to our participants.  Money doesn’t present an obstacle thanks to the generosity of so many individuals who believe in what we do, and thanks to the success of our fundraising events.  How do we continue to raise money for camp?  This is always a question we ask ourselves, because our programs are not free to run, and we find ways every year to make sure that our programs still continue to be free to our children and families that need them the most.

We have four fundraisers coming up in September, and I would encourage those of you who read my blog to make an effort to participate in one or more of the events whether as a volunteer or attendee.  Our events are as follows:
-The Teddi Bowl, Friday, September1st: A high school level football game between Victor and Aquinas where campers from Camp Good Days can be part of a high school level football team.
-Tour de Teddi, Saturday, September 9th: A bike ride around Keuka Lake starting at our Branchport Facility.
-The 13th Annual Courage Bowl, Saturday, September 16th: A college level football game between St. John Fisher College and the College at Brockport where campers from Camp Good Days can be part of a college football and cheerleading team.
-John Welch Charity Golf Classic, Friday, September 22nd: A golf tournament held at Ravenwood Golf Club by John Welch Enterprise to benefit Camp Good Days.
-The 27th Annual Camp Good Days Wine Auction Dinner, Saturday, September 30th: A roaring 20s themed night filled with silent and live auction items, and gold medal winning wines from the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition.
Often, people ask why we need a camp for children with cancer.  I have never heard it better explained than the way one of our volunteer doctors at our camping programs, Dr. Steve Dubanski said when he gave me a poem he wrote after the first summer that he volunteered at camp.  So, I thought I would share it with all of you since the poem says it better than I ever could. 


Friday, July 28, 2017

A Highlight of the Summer



It is hard to believe that this summer is almost halfway over, and needless to say, it has been a busy and exciting time.  One of the highlights for me each summer is the Ring of Honor Induction at our recreational facility, and this year, we will have an added dimension as we have two dedication ceremonies as well. 

The addition to the infirmary is being dedicated to Dr. Martin Klemperer and the other doctors who have been here for camp over the years.  Dr. Martin Klemperer is probably the most significant person in Camp Good Days history because we were the first camp in the country to be started by a layperson for children from several different medical centers.  While I was always confident that we could make Teddi’s dream a reality, I had to deal with the fact that no parent of a child with cancer would let their child go to camp in the early 80’s unless assured that their child’s medical condition could be well-managed and cared for.  I never worried about the children’s care when it was in the hands of Dr. Klemperer.  Even when he left the University of Rochester Medical Center to go to Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia and then to All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida, where he was the head of the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit, he always maintained his New York Medical License specifically so that they could volunteer at Camp Good Days each summer. After serving as one of our camp doctors for over 25 years, Dr. Klemperer retired.  The good Lord put Dr. Klemperer in my path, and because of him, Camp Good Days became a reality and is what it is today, and thousands of children with cancer have had the chance to experience this magical place firsthand.  It is a real honor to dedicate the addition to the infirmary to Dr. Klemperer and the doctors who have assisted him.

There is also going to be the dedication of the new pontoon boat at Camp Good Days in memory of Salvatore “Skip” DeBiase, Jr.  The boat will be used for boat rides and fishing excursions for the children. Skip DeBiase was my brother from another mother and one of my dearest friends over the years, and was one of the first people I talked to about starting a camp for children with cancer.  From the very first meeting when I brought up the idea of camp, to the day the good Lord took him, he was always there for me and for Camp Good Days. During the first summer of camp, Skip wanted to teach the kids how to fish on Fourth Lake.  He was very excited and went into the local town of Inlet to get supplies, but was discouraged by the locals who said that Fourth Lake was dealing with an acid rain problem and was dead.  Skip, ever the optimist, refused to believe that the lake was dead, and so he bought fishing poles and worms for the kids.  The next morning, Skip taught the kids how to bait the hooks and how to use a reel and cast.  After a few moments, the first child caught a fish, and after a few moments more, all of the kids on the dock had fish.  Skip was always very determined and he cared so much about the people around him.  He started the fishing program at camp, and to this day, fishing is one of the most popular activities at camp.  We are so grateful for the generosity of Skip’s family who donated the pontoon boat to Camp Good Days in his memory. Whenever people take a ride on the wonderful boat, they will see the picture of him helping a camper bait a hook on the plaque we are placing on the boat.

Camp Good Days could never be possible without people like our great volunteers, Dr. Klemperer and the other doctors who have helped at camp, and friends like Skip.  It is crazy to think that this is our 38th summer of programs, and I can only continue to thank the good Lord for all of the wonderful people he has put in my path on this incredible journey.   
 

Monday, June 26, 2017

Thinking of How it all Started...


Who would believe that what started 38 years ago to give the youngest of my three children, Teddi, who was nine at the time, and 62 other children, a residential camping experience, would turn into what Camp Good Days is today. 

Following Teddi’s diagnosis, it became evident that the toughest part of her battle with cancer, was not the craniotomy, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy; it was the loneliness of being the only child in her school and neighborhood dealing with cancer.  This was robbing her of that very special time in her life called childhood, where children have that sense of invincibility; they think that they will live forever and that there is nothing they can’t do.  As Teddi’s father, she looked to me to navigate through her cancer journey.  I remember being with Teddi in her bedroom where she would look up at me, thinking that I could provide the answers that she wanted, only for me to go into the bathroom, grab a stack of towels and break down and cry because I couldn’t help her, and I couldn’t help her to understand what was happening, because I myself didn’t understand. 

During the winter season, I was watching the Today Show one morning, Tom Brokaw was the host at the time, and they said they would take a sort break, and when they came back, they were going to take the viewers to see a special place.  To this day, I don’t know why I decided to watch through the commercial.  In the segment, they showed children who were dealing with cancer at a camping facility.  They were smiling and laughing and singing songs around a camp fire, and fishing in a pond.  I thought of what I saw all during my drive to Albany and how I wanted Teddi to have that experience.  When I was in Albany, I shared what I saw with a young lady in the office, Kathleen, who would put famous TV detective, Columbus, to shame.  She contacted the Today Show, and they agreed to send a copy of the show segment to me.  She then tracked down the reporter and asked him to call me, which to his credit, he did.  I talked to him for 45 minutes and there was excitement in his voice about what he had seen and what I wanted to do.  I was also able to get in touch with the doctor who was in charge of the program and learn more about his.  Rather than send Teddi to the program that was far away, I began to talk to two friends of mine about starting my own program, and I convinced the doctor to come to Rochester to talk about the process. 

So, on a cold morning in Rochester, at the Academy of Medicine, Camp Good Days was born.  There was no name, no money, and no volunteers, but we definitely had the kids.  I was able to find a doctor who was willing to be the medical director, and for the next eight months, I worked on putting the first program together.  We were able to have the first camp at Camp Eagle Cove in the Adirondack Mountains on Fourth Lake.  There were 63 children who participated that first year: 21 from Rochester, 21 from Syracuse, and 21 from Buffalo, along with 77 volunteers.  Everyone who was there that first summer has very special memories in their hearts from their time there.  Soon after the children were on the bus to go home, we were already talking and planning about how to make next year bigger and better, and the rest is history. 

Over the years, Camp Good Days has had great growth.  I am proud to say that we were the first organization in the country to start providing programs to meet the specific needs of children with a sibling or parent with cancer, and later we established a program for men and women with cancer.  When I started Camp Good Days, I made two promises to myself, and I have done my best to make them a reality.  One was that Camp Good Days would never be a bureaucracy, because my career was with the state government, and that was probably the second largest bureaucracy in the world, and the second was that no family would have to deal with the financial anxiety of sending their child to camp when they were already worrying about the question, “why did my child get diagnosed with cancer?”  I never wanted camp to be a source of financial stress for a family already dealing with so much, and so I said that all of our programs and services would be provided free of charge to the participants, and I am pleased that all of the programs and services have been free for the last 38 years.  This is only made possible because of generous individuals and special events like our Camp Good Days Wine Competition and Auction Dinner.  It is crazy to think that 38 years have gone by.  Over the past 38 years, we have served over 47,000 campers from 22 states and 34 countries, and we will add to these numbers after this summer.  Many of our programs and services have served as models for other cancer programs and organizations all over the world.  As today is Teddi’s birthday, I keep thinking of everything that we have accomplished over the years and I am so thankful for everyone who helped to make this happen. 

One day while visiting at the cemetery where Teddi is buried, I thought that I would like to do something for Teddi’s grave, and so with the help of some of the staff in my office, and the cooperation of the cemetery, we made a beautiful plaque for Teddi’s headstone.  A few days ago, some of us visited the grave to see what it looked like, and it looks beautiful.  Over the years, whenever I have had a difficult decision to make, I would find myself going to where she is buried; it is a very quiet place, and I can talk to Teddi there.  It is so amazing to realize that one girl’s battle means so much to so many children and families from all over the world.  I would like to leave you with the idea that children are not possessions, they are a gift from God, and we should always make sure to tell those that we love how much they mean to us.  God bless you all, and have a safe and happy summer.        

Monday, May 15, 2017

Project Exile Continues to Work for Rochester




Over the past several months following the election of President Donald Trump and the appointment of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Project Exile has received a lot of attention.  Specifically, the Administration has recognized that Project Exile, which relies upon coordinated strategies that bring together all levels of law enforcement to reduce gun crime and make our cities safer, ought to serve as a model for combatting violent crime in cities across America. We, in the Rochester community have the longest running and one of the most successful Project Exiles in the country, and we should be very proud of all that has been accomplished. 

During the holiday season of 1997, three uniformed Rochester Police Officers had been shot.  Fortunately, none died, but in order for local law enforcement to find how that perpetrator got the gun that he had used into Rochester, they needed the help of the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF).  This need resulted in the RPD and the ATF forming a multi-agency gun task force, so that they could begin to develop cooperation and share information.  At that time, the Rochester community was desperately searching for a new way to address the crime and violence that was plaguing our community.  Indeed, at that time, the homicide rate in Rochester was hovering around 70 homicides a year, which gave us the distinction of having the highest per capita homicide rate of any city in New York State. 

In trying to find what our community could do to help to deal with the proliferation of illegal guns in our community and the homicide issue, Rochester’s Mayor at the time, together with the RPD Police Chief and the Monroe County District Attorney, met with then-FBI Director Louis Freeh, during a visit that Freeh was making to Buffalo to speak to the employees at the Department of Justice.  Director Freeh mentioned a new program called Project Exile, that was started in Richmond, Virginia, that was having very positive results. 

The Project Exile model relies upon cooperation between different state and local law enforcement agencies, and their federal counterparts.  Fortunately, such cooperation already existed in Rochester in the form of a multi-agency gun task force.  What the model also required, however, was significant cooperation between prosecutors at the local and state level in order to ensure that offenders were pursued by whichever prosecutor’s office could do so most effectively.  Historically, this had been a difficult undertaking as prosecutors at the local and state level are elected, while federal prosecutors are appointed. Fortunately for the Rochester community, our then-Acting District Attorney, Howard Relin, and our then-United States Attorney, Denise O’Donnell, were willing to put their egos aside, and work together for what was best for our community.  As a result, a decision was made to give Project Exile a try in Rochester. 

Despite the interest and commitment that law enforcement had for Project Exile, one necessary ingredient was still missing.  In order for Project Exile to succeed, community involvement and support was also required.  At the time, one of the federal judges in Rochester invited me to come to a meeting in his chambers to see whether I, and the PAVE (Partners Against Violence) Initiative of which I was a part, would be willing to lend our support and assistance in bringing Project Exile to Rochester.  So, on September 28th, 1998, at a press conference at our Federal Building in Downtown Rochester, we announced that we would be the second city in the country to implement Project Exile. 

In the first year of its implementation, the homicide rate in Rochester went down to a 14-year low.  According to statistics from the ATF and the RPD, over the past 18 years, hundreds of criminals have been exiled and thousands of illegal guns have been removed from the streets of our community, and the homicide rate, while it has fluctuated over the years, has never gone back to what it was before we began Project Exile.  It is impossible to know what devastation those guns could have caused in our community if they, along with the criminals who possessed them, were allowed to remain on the streets.

Out of Project Exile grew Project TIPS, which stands for Trust, Information, Programs & Services.  TIPS is a program where we bring different law enforcement agencies and social service agencies to a community selected by the RPD Chief and his command staff.  The communities selected typically have a higher than normal amount of unsolved crime.  The goal simply is to raise the level of trust between the people who live in those areas and the men and women of law enforcement who are charged with their public safety.  Working with volunteers from the Criminal Justice Program at the Rochester Institute of Technology, a group of people spend the first part of TIPS going door-to-door asking people simple quality of life questions so that people in the community can share their concerns and frustrations about the quality of life in that particular neighborhood.  The meetings also provide the residents a vehicle through which they can anonymously share information about criminal activity in their neighborhood.  They are able to do so without fear of reprisal as the authorities announce that we are visiting every single home in their neighborhood speaking with every resident possible.

After being surveyed, residents are invited to an area which has previously been established as a staging area for various law enforcement agencies, the fire department, and various social service agencies.  A neighborhood cookout is also held with everyone being invited and all food donated by TOPS Supermarket.  TIPS further provides a way for children in the community to interact with representatives from law enforcement and the fire department in a collegial and non-threatening environment.  The TIPS Program, which we have conducted every summer for the last eleven years, has proven to be very popular and extremely successful. 

Another program that grew from Project Exile is The Rochester Youth Violence Partnership (RYVP), which is a hospital-based violence intervention program that targets trauma victims under the age of 18 when they present for medical care following a knife or gun injury.  This was started by Dr. Gestring and the University of Rochester Medical Center.

Project Exile is a model for law enforcement cooperation around the country, and I am proud to have served as the Chair of the Project Exile Advisory Board since its implementation.  I am even more proud that every month for nearly two decades, members of law enforcement, government and social service agencies, clergy, and non-government organizations—those who comprise the Project Exile Board—have gathered at the Federal Building for a single, unifying purpose.  That purpose is to find new and innovative ways to keep our community safe and a good place to work and raise a family. I am happy to report that nearly twenty years since its start, Project Exile continues to work for Rochester.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Passing of a Close Friend


I hope that all is well with you.  I will take credit for the nicer than usual weather we have been having, which Wendy and I brought back with us from Florida.  

A week ago, on Sunday, I received a call from the son of one of my best friends, Skip DeBiase, telling me that Skip had passed away.  Skip’s son asked if I would be willing to read the eulogy, which I was honored to do, but it was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do since Skip and I had been friends for over 40 years.   

Skip had struggled with back problems and surgeries, which caused bouts of depression, and then he got the worst news anyone could get; that he has a malignant tumor.  He was told that he should start chemotherapy and radiation, but Skip chose not to.  Like everything else in Skip’s life, he chose to leave this world on his own terms.

Over the summer, I was at camp while Skip was staying at home and didn’t want to see anyone.  I wrote him a letter expressing my love of our friendship, which I have pictured below for you all to see.  I hope that this letter will show you how close our friendship was, and how much I truly cared and loved him.


Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Cancer Takes Another Before Their Time

Cancer, as we have said many times, affects everyone; either directly or indirectly, and Camp Good Days is no exception.  Once again, on Martin Luther King Day, I had to hear some very sad news.  I received a call early in the morning telling me that our long-time volunteer, Matt O’Brien had passed away and had lost his battle with cancer.  Matt exemplified what it meant to be a Camp Good Days volunteer.

I first met Matt when he volunteered to be a camp counselor at our summer camp back in 1992.  He has been volunteering at camp in the summer pretty much every year except for last year.  He always volunteered at more than one program, which I am sure took up much of his vacation time.  He would volunteer at our women’s oncology weekends, our Teddi’s Team program for 8-12 year olds with cancer, and our Doing a World of Good International program.  He loved the campers, and you never questioned why he was there; he gave all that he had to the campers he worked with.  He was always willing to do anything for anyone and he never complained.  When I would go to thank him, he would always say, “I should be the one thanking you for this experience.”  He helped with our special events like our Annual Joe Benet Memorial Kazoo Fest, the Explorer Post, and the air show. 
Matt at Camp
I, along with countless others here at Camp Good Days will miss him.  I not only consider him to be a great volunteer, but also a great friend.  I know that he will be reunited with all of his Camp Good Days friends in Heaven, and I feel that Sonia is greeting him at the door.  

Each year, Camp Good Days has A Night of Gratitude, where we recognize volunteers and supporters of Camp Good Days who have gone above and beyond what we as an organization can expect, and I am very pleased to say that at this year’s Night of Gratitude, on April 7th, we will be inducting Matt into the Ring of Honor.  In this way, he will be a part of Camp Good Days for all staff, volunteers, and campers to see in the future.  He was a good man, and he will be greatly missed.