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With kids of all ages playing basketball in the gym and others creating personalized superhero capes in a craft room next door, it appears the summer day camp running at Surrey's A.H.P. Matthew Elementary is like any other.
And in many ways it is – there's an array of themed activities every day, snacks and lunch and lots of playtime indoors and out.
The main difference is that the children taking part are living with – or beyond – cancer and blood disorders.
City Camp, a new program offered by West Coast Kids Cancer Foundation (WCK) in partnership with Surrey Schools, is for kids aged six to 12. It's the first time WCK has worked with a school district to offer such day camps and so far, it's been "phenomenal," says Shannon Hartwig, the foundation's executive director.
She says the concept arose following the realization that there were cultural barriers and sensitivities to things such as overnight sleepovers or coed environments stopping parents from signing up for other camps.
"We realized the best move forward was day camp, because then they can play all day and they have the comfort of going home," said Hartwig.
Organizers looked to Surrey due to its demographics and cultural diversity. It was an added bonus that Surrey Memorial Hospital, which has a pediatric oncology unit, is nearby.
Camper Naila Abdi is just seven years old and has a sickle cell disease. That didn't stop her from soaring around the room in her shiny blue cape. She said she's had a ton of fun making crafts and new friends, and though it's the first summer camp she's ever attended, wasn't scared – once she realized it didn't involve a tent in the woods.
"I thought I had to go to the forest for summer camp," she said.
The pilot program has been an inspiring experience for camp coordinator Kelsey Merritt. She says the key is removing barriers – both for the participating children and their families – so they can forget their worries and have fun.
Not only does the camp also welcome siblings of children facing cancer or blood disorders, but scheduling is flexible, so that kids who need to skip a day to attend treatment, or who aren't feeling well, can come another day.
Volunteers will even step up with transportation help, if needed. When some kids didn't show up earlier in the week, camp organizers surprised the parent with a phone call.
"Mom was like, 'I'm swamped. My littlest one who's really sick needs to go to the hospital,'" said Hartwig, "and we just said, 'we'll come pick up your kids then.'"
High school students volunteering
Another unique aspect to the camp is that students from Surrey secondary schools are helping out.
Paul Bruce, a Surrey Schools career facilitator, put out the call to schools and chose 12 volunteers in Grade 11, 12 and recent grads. For two weeks prior to the camps starting, students attended workshops and information sessions, and were briefed about illness, grief and loss by experts.
Mandy Bhabba, a Grade 11 student at L.A. Matheson Secondary, hopes to pursue a career in social work and knew City Camp would be the perfect learning opportunity.
"It's been amazing. The kids are so awesome – they have so much energy," she says, noting it's nearly impossible to tell if any of the children are facing illness.
"They have just as much energy and they're just as crazy as all the other camps I've done. I don't see them as any different than any other kids I've worked with. They're so resilient and strong."
Jeff Randhawa, Community Schools Partnership coordinator, said the district is monitoring the success of the new summer program and considering how to extend the partnership and keep the children connected to the mentors and to the program.
Ultimately, he says, that would also include having the high school student volunteers mentor new students from year to year.
For more information about City Camp, which continues July 22-28 in Surrey, check wckfoundation.ca