Camp Rainbow Gold Provides a Safe, Healing Place
by Lonni Leavitt-Barker, photos by Tiffany Howard
Over the past several years, I can’t tell you how many people have told me, “Oh, I could never handle having a child with cancer. I don’t know how you do it.” I always tell them, “You will handle it because you have no choice.”
I’m not going to sugar coat it. It is brutal. Agonizing. A torturous roller coaster you never get off—even after the 1,157 days of Chemotherapy are done. My son Kean was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia a month shy of his 3rd birthday. The day we were told our sweet little Down syndrome baby had cancer was the day the earth shifted for our entire family.
Those of us in the cancer trenches know that when a child is diagnosed with cancer, his entire family is diagnosed with cancer. Life stops for everyone. In our case, our three little girls were thrust into the arms of friends, relatives, and neighbors for the first few months while my husband and I numbly survived the grueling and grinding days of watching our son fight for his life.
Those were darkness-filled days. In fact, I’ve decided if anyone ever tells me to go to hell, I can tell them I’ve been there and done that.
Out of that darkness, our family experienced constant bursts of light in the form of a tremendous amount of love, support, and service on our behalf. Perhaps the brightest light during this journey (we’d even call it our Roman candle) has been an organization called Camp Rainbow Gold.
Even though Camp Rainbow Gold has been around for more than 30 years, I’d never heard of them until Kean got sick. They not only put on cancer camps for children and teens, but they also run camps for siblings and retreats for families and provide scholarships for some of these warriors.
One of the doctors at MSTI talked us into sending our girls to Siblings Camp (which they now put on equal footing as Christmas). However, my husband and I didn’t fully “get” the magic of Camp until we went to a family retreat.
This past June, we joined 17 families outside of Stanley on the shores of Lake Perkins. For four days, we relaxed. And I’m not talking, sitting on a beach, reading a book relaxing. I’m talking, we focused on having fun as a family, cutting loose, wearing ridiculous costumes at a dance, riding bikes, climbing walls, hiking, kayaking, singing, making crafts, and making friends. We fit in. All 17 families bonded because we all had experienced the same gut-wrenching gamut of emotions and suck-you-dry events in various forms.
Camp is safe. It is a safe place to open up, to compare notes, doctors, and treatments. It is also a safe place to expose your souls. Before every meal, we all grasp hands and make a gigantic circle where we sing a silly but meaningful song of thankfulness. During every meal, the whackiest of hats is passed around with a microphone, where even the shyest or youngest or child who now has disabilities from radiation will take the mic and “Shine”—show gratitude for someone or something at camp.
The final full night of CRG is a favorite. The first part of the evening is a talent show. It is unlike any talent show you’ve ever witnessed. It really should be called a love show. Because no matter whether a person has talent or not (and some don’t), these kids feel loved enough and confident enough in that love to get up on stage and sing their hearts out, share their most private fears through poetry, or tell the lamest of jokes. As I said, Camp is a safe place. It is a place full of love.
The second part of the final evening is the Wish Cone Ceremony. Everyone takes a pine cone, writes messages on brightly colored paper, throws them into the campfire, and sends those wishes up into the night sky. When you are in the company of these children who have experienced excruciating pain or sitting next to a family who has lost a child to cancer, the Wish Cone Ceremony is about as powerful as it gets.
We all come home healed in a way we can’t explain. In fact, we’ve all commented how we wish everyone could come up and experience camp so they too could feel the love and get a taste of the magic.