UNDERWOOD — At first glance, Camp Quality Kentuckiana might seem like just a typical summer camp, and in many ways, it is.
But the local kids who attend the camp are all united by a shared experience — they have all faced cancer. For some, their battle is in the past, and for others, their fight continues with ongoing treatment.
As they enjoy a week packed with activities, Camp Quality provides these kids with an opportunity to forget their troubles and just have fun.
The 31st annual Camp Quality Kentuckiana is taking place this week at Country Lake Christian Retreat in Underwood. The free camp started Sunday with its "Heroes Day," and it concludes Friday afternoon. The campers at Camp Quality, ranging from ages 5 to 16, include cancer survivors, those in active cancer treatment and those facing medical issues related to their cancer treatment.
There are seven nurses from Norton Children's Hospital's cancer unit onsite throughout the week for 24-hour medical care, and each camper has a companion to accompany them throughout the week. This year's camp included 98 kids and 118 volunteers.
Eddie Bobbitt, executive director of Camp Quality Kentuckiana, said the week helps campers set aside thoughts of cancer treatment and whatever else they are going through. Instead, they can "just be kids again." The community-funded organization also provides year-round activities for kids with cancer.
Camp Quality, a volunteer-run nonprofit, offers a diverse array of activities for the kids, including soccer with Louisville City FC, a "Thunder Over Camp" show by Zambelli Fireworks, zip lining, hot air balloon rides, pie fights and a dance party. New additions this year included activities from the Kentucky Science Center and a children's show by Derby Dinner Playhouse.
Bobbitt said working with the Camp Quality kids has changed his perspective on life, and the stories of the kids' battles with cancer inspire the staff and volunteers to create a memorable camp experience so they can enjoy their childhood.
"A few years ago, I was talking to a doctor, and he was like, 'I don't think you get it — I don't think you understand how important this camp is,' and I was like, 'sure I do, I've been part of it for years," he said. "He was like, 'these kids go to the hospital to get better, but they go to your camp to heal.' And that was incredibly powerful to think about how important it is."
A SAFE HAVEN
Bobbitt has seen Camp Quality kids build confidence through activities such as fishing, and the kids are able to bond with others who have faced similar experiences. The camp is a family of about 200 people, he said, and they all rally around the kids.
"This is much bigger than just s'mores and pie fights and zip lines," he said. "This is a big family, and it's important for the kids and us."
Vivianne, 13, has been attending Camp Quality for seven years after facing leukemia, and she has been cancer-free for eight years. She enjoys relating to others kids at the camp who understand what it's like to experience cancer, and it gives her the perfect opportunity to make new friends.
"Every year there's new people here, and it's really nice because we all get to bond about the same thing," she said. "We don't really like to talk about it — it's not something that we like to bring up, but we all know that it's something we're all there for each other for."
The camp shows kids that they are not alone, she said, and it encourages them not to give up, Vivianne said. It's a type of therapy that is not available in the hospital.
Louisville resident Sara Veazey, 34, started at Camp Quality as a camper 22 years ago, and she is now working there as a companion and staff member. She started attending the camp at age 13 as she battled Ewing sarcoma.
"I was just like the other kids," she said. "I was in treatment, I didn't have any hair. I like to say that this camp literally saved these kids' lives — I know it did mine. It gives you people who know you, who understand you and are empathetic. They've been through what you've been through, so it really gives you something to look forward to, it gives you like, 'OK, I've just got two rounds of treatment and then it's camp time.'"
After her four years as a camper, Veazey has returned each year to work at the camp, and she's been cancer-free for about 18 years. Camp Quality is a life-changing experience, even if someone just attends one year, she said.
On Wednesday, kids participated in a "Lego Spectacular" presented by Aiden's Legacy, a local nonprofit. The organization, started by the family of Camp Quality camper Aiden Johnson, was started to raise money for Norton Children's Hospital and to collect Legos for children with cancer.
Aiden, 15, has recovered after battling acute lymphoblastic leukemia twice since he was two and a half years old. After facing a relapse several years ago, playing with Legos in his hospital room gave him a way to pass the time.
He said he is happy to spread some happiness by donating Legos, whether it's for the kids at Camp Quality or at a hospital.
“It gives me a happy feeling to see kids smile when they get a huge box of Legos,” he said. "We mostly do it to take their minds off the whole cancer thing. It can be hard sometimes, and we usually will take Legos to [cancer patients] to pass the time, because medical treatments take a long time."
Team leader Nancy Lange has worked at Camp Quality for all 31 years, and she served as a nurse at the camp for 29 years before retiring. She has been inspired to see so many former campers come back as companions — it "just makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside," she said.
Camp Quality is a safe haven for these kids, Lange said.
"There's this opportunity to make them feel good about themselves," she said. "Simple tasks to give positive reinforcement for what they've accomplished to be a little more independent...this year with our 20-something first-time campers, a lot of them didn't know any other campers, but almost by the time we get on the bus, they have connected somehow. They might not talk about what's going on with them, but they all know that they're at the camp because they've all walked a similar path."
Lange wants the kids at Camp Quality to know that they are heroes.
"They're beautiful, they're awesome, they're wonderful, and we just want them to know they are loved," she said.