Monday, June 26, 2017
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.