MILLVILLE — Terry Ketchem first attended Camp Dost as a 5 year old while his sister, Gwen, was battling leukemia.
“She’s fine now,” Ketchem said of his sister. He now works as a police officer in Coal Township.
Ketchem was so deeply moved by his experience at the camp that he later became involved as a volunteer. Next year, he will begin a two-year term as the camp’s volunteer director.
“I know how much fun I had (at camp),” Ketchem said. “I wanted to make sure other kids had the same amount of fun I did.”
Camp Dost was founded in 1983 by the Ronald McDonald House of Danville.
The camp, for children fighting cancer and their siblings, is offered for one week each year.
The camp is being held this week at Camp Victory near Millville. Eighty campers, age 5 to 18, are participating in the camp, which has a theme of “Decades.”
In addition to the campers, 66 volunteers are giving their time to lead the camp.
Devon Gulick, a child life specialist from the Lehigh Valley, is completing her second year as the camp’s volunteer director.
She started volunteering with the camp 14 years ago.
“A friend of mine from high school got me involved,” Gulick said. “It’s the most amazing group here. I haven’t left.”
In addition to typical camping activities, such as riding a zip line, music class and a variety of games and activities, each day has a different theme.
Gulick noted that themes this week include the 1920s, 1980s and 1990s. A disco party will be held to mark the 1970s.
Gulick said lives are touched each year the camp is offered.
“A couple years ago, one of the campers, it was her first year,” she said. “She had just been diagnosed and was having a really hard time. She was very quiet and shy, really worried.”
After the camp week ended, Gulick said the girl’s mother sent a message expressing that the girl’s life had been changed as a result of the camp.
“She was proud of who she was,” Gulick said of the girl. “She has now become one of our counselors.”
Many who volunteer with the camp have a special connection to it.
Steve Patterson, of Sunbury, said his video production company was contracted 30 years ago to make a video on Camp Victory.
As part of the video, he was tasked with interviewing volunteers who conduct Camp Dost each year at the facility.
“At the end of the day, I was so moved I said ‘do you need any volunteers?’” Patterson recalled.
He has been volunteering with Camp Dost ever since.
“I had no idea how well I would like it,” Patterson said. “I had no experience with this... I think it changed my life. It made me a more empathetic person.”
Tom Abramouski, a camp volunteer from Scranton, came to the camp as a participant after being diagnosed with cancer as a teenager.
“I absolutely fell in love with the place and decided I needed to do what others did for me (at camp),” he said.
Abramouski said his cancer diagnoses was difficult.
“I was shy, I was awkward,” he said. “I didn’t know how to process the fact that I had cancer.”
He was able to overcome many of his fears about his diagnosis as a result of attending the camp.
“I owe everything I have to (Camp Dost), my health, my happiness,” Abramouski said.
The volunteers enjoy their interactions with the campers.
This week, Ketchem was asked by campers if he has any fears while he’s on the job as a police officer.
“That’s hard to answer,” he said. “You have to face what you have to face... What (the campers) are facing is a lot worse than anything... Their bravery far exceeds anything.”
While the volunteers enjoy working with the campers, the children who attend the camp appreciate the many activities offered.
Alex Schaffner, 8, of Herndon, lists fishing and swimming as his favorite activities.
“It’s fun,” he said. “I’m very excited (to be here).”
Patterson said close bonds develop among the campers and counselors.
“It’s like being in an extended family of 250 people,” he said. “It’s a closeness, not just with the kids, but with the camp (volunteers).”
According to information provided by the Ronald McDonald House of Danville, those who attend the camp are primarily patients at the Janet Weis Children’s Hospital at Geisinger.
Camp volunteers come from both the local area and across the United States. Volunteers travel from locations including Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Texas and Tennessee to help with the camp each year.
Medical care is available 24 hours per day while the camp is in operation. Two pediatric oncologists, one nurse practitioner and two pediatric oncology nurses volunteer their time to help with the camp.
Through their experiences at the hospital, Gulick said many of the campers are familiar with the medical professionals who staff the camp.
“(The campers) run in and hug whoever is there,” Gulick said. “That is part of what makes families comfortable having their children stay here.”
The camp’s annual budget is $31,000. Of that, $21,000 is paid to Camp Victory for use of the facilities.
The Ronald McDonald House of Danville holds fundraisers and accepts donations throughout the year to support the camp.
For more information on supporting the camp, visit www.rmhdanville.org.
Staff writer Kevin Mertz can be reached at 570-742-9671 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.