When the Barkman sisters signed up to go to Ronald McDonald Camp four years ago, they were apprehensive about what they would find. Lauren, six at the time, had recently been diagnosed with leukemia and was still receiving chemotherapy treatment. “I expected that I would get really homesick,” says Lauren, now age 11. Her older sister Katherine, age 14, was concerned as well. “I was really nervous because I’d never been to camp before and it was going to be a week away from my parents,” she says.
However, everything changed the moment the girls arrived at the camp, located three hours from Philadelphia in the Pocono mountains. “I thought ‘whoa, this is huge!’ It was just so amazing,” Lauren says. “People at camp were just like me and that comforted me. No one cared if you were sick.”
Darlene and Peter Barkman, the girls’ parents, admit they were nervous at first as well. However, the fact that many members of their daughter’s medical team from The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia would be there as volunteers eased their fears. “For us, we felt very safe even though we had the normal anxiety of letting go,” Darlene says. “It was the best thing we could have ever done.”
Today, it is hard for Lauren and Katherine to narrow down the reasons they love camp. “I like the ropes courses. I love to climb in high places,” says Lauren. She also enjoys the food. “It tastes like home cooking which always makes me feel happy. It is delicious. My favorite is waffles and ice cream.”
Katherine admits she “just fell in love with the whole camp. It is the best week ever. It would take hours to list everything I love.” However, both Katherine and Lauren agree that the friends they have made each year are one of the best parts of their week. “The friends I make here will last a lifetime,” explains Katherine.
For Lauren, having her sister with her at camp has made big difference. “That makes it really special,” she says. For Katherine, camp means seeing her sister be happy and carefree. “I love watching her have fun. She has been through a lot so to see her love life again is just awesome.” Camp allows Katherine to relax and just have fun as well. “It is one week where everyone is allowed to get away from everything,” she says. “Your biggest worry is maybe that it will rain. I was constantly worried about my sister before but here I didn’t have to worry. All of your worries go away.”
This is also one of the reasons Darlene appreciates Camp. “I love the fact that Camp takes kids who are facing the greatest challenges of their lives and have given them the chance to put it down for the week,” she says. “It is not about the chemotherapy or the steroids, it is about having fun and remembering that cancer doesn’t define you. It is just something you are going through.”
Camp, now in its 25th year, also means so much to Katherine because it allows her to meet others who understand what it is like having a sibling with cancer – something she does not get outside of camp very often. “I get to talk to kids my own age and see I am not alone. Your parents say you are not alone but you don’t really believe until you are here. It is not just about the patient; people underestimate how much the sibling goes through. The patient may have a physical fight but we have an emotional fight, too. Camp acknowledges that.”
For those parents who might be nervous about sending their children to camp, Darlene says just do it. “As parents, we get caught up in the little things we can control when our children are sick, but the benefits that my children have received emotionally, psychologically, and socially from camp are more than anything you can even imagine,” she says. “You are told to try and maintain a normal life during treatment but things aren’t normal, and this is a way for things to be normal again for a week.”
Katherine has the same message for kids thinking about going to Ronald McDonald Camp for the first time. “You are going to be nervous and that’s okay. Just sign the paper and come because I promise it will be the best week of the summer and it will make your journey that much easier.”
To learn more our one week Ronald McDonald Camp for oncology patients and their siblings held each summer in August in the Poconos, and to find out how you can help send children like Lauren and Katherine to Camp, visit www.philarmh.org/ronaldmcdonaldcamp.