First Descents Camp, July 2009, Montana
Hello to anyone who is kind enough (and sleep-deprived enough!) to read about my 2nd experience as “Stepmom”, camp-mom at a Montana First Descents camp. Getting started with my “blog” this year was much more difficult than I thought. I don’t know if it was nerves, the fact that I had already been there/done that, or that I didn’t start camp with the same need as I did last year to tell my story. When I arrived at camp last year I kept a “blog” so that my husband (Brent) could share the First Descents experience vicariously through my words. With Allan Goldberg’s passing a few weeks before my first camp, Brent wasn’t sure what our future involvement with FD would be and whether or not it would feel the same without Allan. My “blog” last year told him all he needed to know and our involvement with FD has continued and substantially increased.
By the way, for those who don’t know the background, here’s a quick primer: Allan Goldberg was Brent’s best friend since childhood. Allan overcame a rare form of cancer as a child and had made working in the cancer community his life’s work. In the summer of 2006, Allan was working for the Lance Armstrong Foundation when he took over the First Descents cancer foundation in Vail, Colorado as the new Executive Director. Shortly after arriving in Vail, Allan experienced back pains and fatigue. As an ironman triathlete who was very in tune with his body, Allan didn’t waste time in seeking medical attention. His worst fears were realized when he was diagnosed with cancer again. Facing 6 months of chemo and radiation, Allan challenged Brent to race in the Leadville 100 mountain bike race in the summer of 2007. Brent accepted the challenge, enlisted a few fellow riders and used the race as an excuse to raise money for First Descents. In 2007, they raised $85,000 for FD and Brent was invited to join the Board of Directors for FD. At this point, Allan asked me to join him at a Montana FD camp in July 2008 as a volunteer camp-mom. Unfortunately, Allan’s health deteriorated in early 2008 and he sadly succumbed to widespread cancer in June, 2008. Brent and I continued our work with FD in Allan’s memory. Brent and his friends raised over $115,000 for FD through their Leadville 100 efforts in 2008 and I attended an emotional FD camp in Montana just three weeks following Allan’s passing. Now back to this year’s story.
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Happy Birthday!! Today would have been number 42 for you. It is hard to believe that it is just past the one-year anniversary of your passing. So much has happened in the past year and I can’t believe how many times I have wanted to talk to you or wish that you could see something Brent and I were doing for First Descents. I feel certain that you know most of everything that I am about to tell you. However, if you don’t get periodic status reports in the after-life, then I am confident that through this letter and the ones that follow that you will be so proud and excited by our continued support, excitement and hands-on involvement for First Descents. For starters, I know you will not be surprised that my first summer at camp in 2008 has completely and forever changed my life. I knew nothing about the non-profit world and I really wished that you and I hadn’t spent so much time comparing our reading lists in lieu of discussing how to make the world better. Through you and First Descents, I now fully understand the power and magic of the non-profit world and the intense feelings that I get through my own participation are nearly indescribable. I can honestly say that I get more pleasure and fulfillment out of the work I do for FD than from any paying job I have ever held.
Townie and Johnny
Did I mention that three of my campers from last year were also here this week? I love that FD always fills their camps with 3-5 return campers and the rest are new to FD. I think it is a good mix and the new campers are psyched to see that there are participants who want to return year after year.
Of the three returnees, I was most excited to see Boa as I feel quite close to him. His story was one of the most important and most passionate during my time at camp last year. He has Colorectal Cancer and was told that he was going to die in Sept 2008 – he is convinced and will tell anyone who will listen that camp last summer at First Descents saved his life and has given him the motivation he needs to beat his cancer and diagnosis. He calls his team of doctors “Team Greatness” and puts any new staff through what we all affectionately call “The Boa Grinder”. If any doctor tells him something he doesn’t like, or is too negative, they are fired. Boa came to the Gala (yes Allan, you are still credited with founding the 1st FD Gala and it never ceases to amaze what else you are given credit for) this past March to be the “keynote speaker.” I had the opportunity to meet his wife and truly realized how much camp changed his life. I saw Boa arrive at camp last year as shy, quiet and unsure. And by the end he was emotional, open and left ready to fight his cancer. His wife was telling me that she could not believe the effects that camp had on him and was so happy and shocked. This year Boa was more like a counselor at camp than a participant. He made a point to talk to every camper, ease them into the week, and help out in any way he could in terms of the participants’ success on and off the water. Although we are close in age, I truly felt proud watching Boa at camp. He is kind, compassionate and I feel so lucky to have had my first two camp experiences with him.
The second returnee was “Too-Tall”. This would be her 6th year at an FD Camp. She attended this year as “campler”, but also proved herself as a future counselor at FD. Her kayaking was great, but it is her understanding, appreciation and love for FD that endeared her to all of the participants at camp. She was encouraging, compassionate and readily able to relate to the participants in a way that none of the other staff could. T00-Tall had Kidney Cancer at age 13 and has had 2 relapses since. She is now 23 years old and recently got married. She was one of the first people I met last year and I was so psyched that she would be at camp again. She taught me about meeting people with cancer and what to say and not to say. She was the one who told me never to pity anyone because they have cancer. It was and has been one of the best life lessons I have learned and truly helped me to become a better “Camp Mom”. I am excited that she and I will always have this amazing camp bond and I hope that we will spend many more summers together in the future.
“Mork” is also another one of my returnees from last year. She is 41 years old and calls herself the “grandma” of the participants. Especially this year because it seemed that our group was a little younger. She has stage IV breast cancer and has not been in remission for the last 11 years. She has had so many different treatments and continues to fight for her life with a great attitude and a will to live that truly amazes me. Mork was so wonderful with all of the participants last year and this week she will be a huge inspiration to so many of them. A lot of our participants have breast cancer this week and I know that she will ease them into the week as well as be a great sounding board to their trials and tribulations with their own cancer.
Wednesday, June 15, 2009
Today was a fantastic day. The sun was shining and we were all on the water. I really do love being on the water, even if it is on a raft. Seeing the campers’ smiles and outward exuberance as they kayak down the river is both touching and life-affirming and is truly one of the best parts of camp. I forgot from last year how great it is to be a cheerleader for them and watch them go for their t-rescues, rolls and whatever other kayaking moves they are trying to accomplish. That being said, you also know that my real favorite thing about camp is the opportunity for me to create relationships through individual conversations with the campers.
One of the participants this week is from Baltimore. His real name is Zac, but through the evolutionary nickname process at camp, Zac became “Dr. P.” – the doctor of politeness. It turns out that Dr. P is the son of one of the partners in the Bethesda law firm where Brent spent his first 7 years in law practice. Through a simple and random twist of fate, Brent sent Dr. P’s dad an FD fundraising e-mail 2 days before camp started and light bulbs went off everywhere. For one, we had no idea that Dr. P had cancer. After getting over that shock, we not only learned that Dr. P would be attending a First Descents camp this summer, but he was going to be in Montana with me! I was so excited to have a hometown connection at camp and Dr. P just sounded like a great guy. Dr. P had a lump on the roof of his mouth for almost a year before he went to see a doctor. It is so scary that he let it go for so long, but after asking a friend in dental school and other people, it didn’t seem like anything to worry about. Even after his first doctor visit, they were not sure that he should have any concerns. Once the cancer was found he ended up having part of his upper pallet, three teeth and part of his jawbone removed. He now wears a “retainer” type piece of equipment in his mouth that you would never notice if he wasn’t constantly playing with it. Cracked me up every time he slipped it in and out of his mouth – he will kill me for saying this, but it reminded me of my grandpa putting in his fake teeth at dinner!! From what I understand his prognosis for right now is great, but over time this may change as the type of cancer he has may show up in another part of his body. He is 27, single (although madly in love) and will have to deal with this the rest of his life. He has the mental strength to survive whatever he is dealt, but it still makes me think, CANCER SUCKS!!!!
Dr. P is amazing and I am so psyched that he is here this week. It is amazing to me how quickly you get to really know someone here and feel that immediate connection. I have that with Dr. P and I love that. The first day on the water he dislocated his shoulder and was off the water for the rest of the day and the next day. His positive attitude and energy made him a favorite of everyone at camp. And he had a partner in crime (read about my next camper) which helped both of them laugh at themselves and continue to have a positive outlook on the rest of the week.
Now let me tell you about “Johnny” as you would absolutely love her. When “Johnny” first applied to camp it was because she had Breast Cancer. As if that wasn’t bad enough, she just found out a few weeks ago that she has Stage 4 liver cancer. She was supposed to be in chemotherapy this week, but her doctor gave her the green light to come to camp because he thought it would be more beneficial to be here than in the hospital. If I ever go to her hometown, I am going to find that doctor and kiss him/her. I love when someone recognizes how powerful FD is. On the first day of camp, Johnny dislocated her shoulder. Yes, that is not a typo. We actually had two campers dislocate their shoulders within about a minute of each other on the first day of camp. Rather than crawl up in a ball and feel badly for herself, Johnny pushed through and sat out on the second day to rest. No tears, no why me’s, no complaints. I would have been so bummed out (which she was), but she did not let it affect her attitude around camp. Today, she got to go in the TOPO DUO – the two person kayak – and had the best time. She rolled, she surfed and it is my guess that her smile even reached you wherever you are! Her positive attitude and determination are something you would love and be truly proud of.
It’s late and I am off to get ready for another great day doing something I love more than I ever thought possible!!!
Thursday, July 16, 2009
Allan, today was my favorite day of the week so far. From morning until night, I had so much fun. It was the perfect FD day and you would have loved it. The morning started off with Mama Ludden decorating the kitchen for Johnny’s birthday. She was turning 33 today and ironically we are at the 33rd camp, just a small tidbit. I got to go on the “ducky (inflatable kayak)” today. It was a blast. And I loved being on the water with the participants. They are all so tenacious and it is hard to believe that most of them just started kayaking 3 days ago. I am envious, proud and love to watch their excitement. It is so contagious.
After kayaking we went up to the Glacier Pass. It was one of those perfect summer afternoons and we hiked up to see the views. Other than the fact that I was wearing sandals in the snow, it was a lot of fun. And the views were truly breathtaking. We spent a lot of time laughing and joking around – I don’t think I have laughed this much in a long time.
At the risk of being repetitive from a couple days ago, I mentioned that I was super nervous and anxious about coming back to camp this year. I just couldn’t fathom how a new camp in a new year could live up to the experience from last summer. Even through the first few days, I just wasn’t sure as this crew of campers and staff just had a different energy and different make-up than last year’s crew. Well, I am thrilled to report that today everything came together and I realized that FD really has something special regardless of the changing atmospheres. Whether the counselors are energetic or laid back and calm, the result is the same. You would be so proud that the foundation of the FD mission and programming is rock solid and works!! The programming is set in stone (sorry, two rock references in a row), the days are well-balanced and the campers totally adapt to whatever we give them. Do you remember how every night at campfire everyone goes around the circle talking about their favorite thing about their day? Tonight at campfire it was nice that while there was the requisite commentary about the day on the river, a lot of the conversation went deeper into the campers’ (and volunteers) whole experience of the week . . . both on and off the water. I swear I could feel you smiling while all of this was going on. I was beaming and felt so proud of the work that FD does. This was the type of evening that these campers will remember forever. They shared stories and emotions that only fellow cancer-survivors could share with each other and I really believe that this gave them something beautiful and tangible that was probably missing from their lives outside of camp. It was truly wonderful.
There is one counselor who you may have heard of during your tenure. Her name is Heather/Mulk/JCocker. She is absolutely HILARIOUS and has so much energy and excitement with the campers. She has been the designated cheerleader, waker-upper, can-do-anything counselor extraordinaire. I met her upon arrival and immediately loved her enthusiasm and passion for FD. She is here from Canada and will spend 3 weeks volunteering for FD. She had a major impact on camp this week and everyone loved her presence. And the best part about Mulk is that she loves everything!!!
One of the reasons that I mention Mulk here is because everyone forgets that if it weren’t for all of the volunteers, camp would not be camp. Whenever we talked about camp, we talked about the participants and the effects that camp has on them. What I find equally amazing is that the volunteers take a week or more of their lives, many of them using their vacation time from work just to be a part of this organization. This week we have 2 nurses, an ER doctor, a logistics manager, and countless safety boaters who work full-time jobs and are here because they care so deeply about the work of FD. When I hear that we have more volunteers than we can put to work, I feel sorry for those who get turned away. Camp not only changes the lives of the participants. The participants have taught most of the volunteers how they want to go home and live their own lives. I know it is so true for me and this week I realized how true it is for the other volunteers.
I have to get some shut eye – tomorrow is going to be a great and, as you know, very emotional day. The campers will do their “Graduation Ride” through the rapids. I loved that last year and can’t wait to experience it again. They also mentioned the candle-lighting ceremony for tomorrow night. I hope they will let me light the candle in your memory again. I have done it twice now (once at camp and once at the FD Gala this past winter) and I hope to do it again.
I will write after that is over – I am already getting teary-eyed thinking about it. Yes, I know, they are good tears and I will continue to make this organization work for as long as they will have me.
Friday, June 17th
Allan, I can’t tell you how sad I am that the last day has come and gone. Ok, so I said this about yesterday, but TODAY was another perfect day. It started out with another “Big Chill” type morning. The first people in the kitchen every morning when I got there were Mama Ludden and Dr. P. Slowly, but surely the kitchen would fill up and it set the mood for the day. Everyone would walk in excited, asking if they could help and talking about the day’s activities. Today was Graduation Day – we would kayak all day and before the last rapid, the participants would group together for a Pep Talk from the counselors. I did not hear what was said, but I know it reduced a few of them to tears and gave them the boost they needed to come through the last rapid of the week with strength and confidence. Once the talk is done, all of the staff heads down to the end of the rapid so that they can watch and cheer on each camper as they come down by themselves. It is such an overwhelming moment of pride, joy and excitement to see each one of them, who couldn’t kayak 5 days prior, come through the rapid. What a metaphor for life!! Everyone is cheering for each other and the sense of belonging to this special family is stronger than ever. People who did not know anything about each other just a week ago are so excited to see the accomplishments of one another . . . excitement typically reserved only for lifelong friends or family members.
One of my favorite parts of being on the water today was when “Polish” came up to me and thanked me for being a part of camp, told me how happy he was to be there, and that he “got it”. Amidst all the laughter and fun of the day, I was reduced to (shock of shocks) teary eyes. Do you remember how I told you Polish was a little guarded and we joked all week about me trying to get him to express his feelings? I will never forget that moment on the water listening to him. His statement is why FD is so special and why I love being involved however I can. When I told the other staff/volunteers about what he said, it made us all appreciate the time that we put into camp for that week.
When we finally got to the “take out” everyone was really sad about getting off the water for the last time. Nobody wanted camp to end, but little did they know there were still more surprises and, hopefully, a feeling of closure to come.
The final campfire arrived and I was excited to hear all of the campers’ thoughts about camp. Some of them told funny stories about their day and week, but of course for me, I wanted to hear from the ones who talked about how camp affected , inspired and changed them. The most powerful story came from “Loveseat” – yes that was her camp name. She is 35 years old, from Montreal and arrived at camp a little shy. She was awesome and I loved having one-on-one conversations with her. She was so much fun to have at camp and over the week she evolved and really came out of her shell. A few nights prior to the last campfire she sang us a song in French. It was awesome and everyone loved it. She then sang again today while on the water with a few people. I was so sad to miss it, but I heard it was a beautiful moment as the day ended and she was singing. Sorry to digress, but I wanted to give you a little background on why her statement tonight was so powerful and reduced most of us to tears of joy. When it was Loveseat’s turn to talk, she told us that since she received the news of her cancer almost two years ago, she has not sang at all. After being a camp for a week, she is so excited to start singing again. I cry just telling you the story because it is still unbelievable to me that 5 days of FD camp can be so powerful. In fact, maybe her nickname should now be “Captain Von Tropp” and FD is her “Maria”! (You know, in the Sound of Music, the Captain didn’t sing for many years until Maria joined the family!)
Once the campfire was over, we walked over to do the candle lighting ceremony . . . the final celebration of camp. I’m sure that you remember that we stand around a small pool of water and give each person a floating candle. We ask them to make a wish and then put their candle into the water. As you know there is one additional candle lit for all the past FD participants that are no longer with us. Last year they started a new tradition in memory of you and all that you did for FD. I lit this candle last year and at the FD Gala and was assuming that I would do it again last night. When Brad asked me to light the candle for you, I was so happy and thankful. I absolutely love that you are forever a part of this FD tradition. It is such a small gesture that carries so much meaning for me. And it is one of the last memories that the participants will take home with them.
Tuesday, July 21, 2009 - POSTSCRIPT
I have been home from camp now for almost 48 hours and I can’t believe how much I miss it. Modern technology is great in that I have been e-mailing, texting and Facebooking with everyone from camp. We, campers and volunteer staff, have been continuously sharing memories, pictures and funny things that were said during camp. It is all so fresh in our minds and hearts and it is so great to see that everyone truly had a wonderful week. I have written about a few other campers that I did not mention in my letters. Each one of them is unique and special to me and I want to make sure they all get their moment in “my spotlight” – read after the quotes. Below are some of the quotes that were stated at camp or subsequently published on Facebook. These inspire me to want to raise more awareness (and more funds!) to help First Descents carry on their mission. Camp works!! If you don’t believe me, listen to what the campers have to say:
“I told Chris that I'm finally going public with my cancer on Facebook. It's time. You guys helped give me the confidence to worry less about how others might view me. I've got the wind back in my sails :)” --- Townie
“There is always a bright side to everything. I was reminded of that many times again this past week” --- Johnny
“is home from best week of his life” --- Loco
"I am going to sing again” --Loveseat
“It was great to have a week off from the Cancer” - Loco
“Attending First Descents is one of the best decisions I have ever made.”
“I am so thankful that FD exists, it makes a positive out of something very negative.”
“The kind of empowerment First Descents fosters transforms the survivors who go through it. It is a huge boost to survivor quality of life.” – NoMO
“FD was such an amazing experience because it allowed us all to feel like perfectly normal 20(and 30)-somethings that happened to be cancer survivors. First Descents let me open up and assess the impact cancer really had on me and talk about it with other survivors without feeling like my life was a pity party.” – Doce
“At First Descents, the reaction to my cancer wasn't a pitying gasp or awe-tinged shock, reactions that I got a lot after being diagnosed at 17. Instead, my fellow campers offered empathy, encouragement, and assurance that life goes on after cancer. My week on the river introduced me to an incredible and inspiring community, led me to rediscover the joy of physical achievement, and helped me make the transition from being a patient to being a survivor.” – Baby Guac
“As a volunteer at First Descents for several camps over the years, I can say with confidence that THERE IS NOTHING LIKE FIRST DESCENTS OUT THERE. Not only does FD pay for young adults to spend a week in the outdoors, but it empowers them for life. I still keep in touch with my friends from camp and know that their stories and courage will be with me for life. I may have taught them how to paddle, but they have shown me what true determination is.” -- anonymous
“First Descents blew my expectations out of the water! I signed up for an adventure camp with hopes to step out of my comfort zone. Being a cancer survivor got me into the camp but living to my potential and beyond helped me finish my camp. I walked away with a new found appreciation and desire to live every moment with everything I have. FD has changed my life and I cannot imagine my life without my new FD family.” --- Farley
“FD gives a renewed hope and a sense of accomplishment that is robbed from some people that have had cancer. Cancer makes you realize the magnitude of which you rely on others....not just for self-definition....but mere existence! This camp taps into the inner core of each person who attends.....both camper and counselors alike. I can and have written long stories all about First Descents and what this camp is/can do!” -- Big Daddy
“First Descents is the most powerful organization I have seen. I attended First Descents and was blown away, not only by the staff and experience, but by the inspiring atmosphere that the campers help create. It provided an escape from treatment, motivating and EMPOWERING cancer survivors to beat their disease and take control of their lives.” --- Polish
Other Camper Highlights (written after camp)
“Loco” is a 21 years old, from North Carolina, and currently battling a Brain Tumor. Loco was quiet, easygoing, took everything in and then surprised me every night at the campfire with his compassionate comments about the day. He was one of the campers I did not have any lengthy conversations with, but whenever I saw him in a kayak, at a meal, or during an activity he was smiling and content. I know that camp had a major impact on his life and hope that he continues his fight with cancer the same way he attended camp – calm and confident.
“Prepped” is a 20 year old with Hodgkins Lymphoma which is currently in remission. She got her name because she showed up at camp with her own kayak and gear, she was “prepared” for camp and ready to go. I spent a lot of time in the car with Prepped and what amazed me most about her is her maturity. I still can’t believe that she is only 20 years old. There isn’t a whole lot of “story” about her, but she was so much fun to have at camp. I especially loved that she was smiling the entire week and got along great with all of the campers. Whether it was playing a game in the kitchen, driving in the car, in a kayak, she was truly “prepped” for camp.
“Nymph”, yes that was her name, is a 20 year old with Hodgkins Lymphoma and finished chemo the week before camp started. She was one of the campers who kept all us laughing the entire week. She told the counselors who picked her up at the airport that she named her tumor “nymph–something” after a Harry Potter character. After spending the week with her, I am now wondering if that was really true. Only because she was young, dirty minded and hysterical. When I wrote that most people at the campfire spoke about their camp experience and others told funny stories, she was the one who told completely non-related kayak stories. One night we were at campfire and everyone was talking about improving their kayaking or the friends that they were making. Nymph states “my favorite moment of the day was the slew of topless men putting on their dry suits in the morning.” Needless to say everyone single person was hysterically laughing. I really enjoyed her presence at camp and I hope she will come back again.
“Giggles” came by her name naturally. She is a 32 year old with breast cancer, which is currently in remission. I’m not sure I have ever seen anyone ever truly giggle as much as she did. She was an amazing participant and everyone at camp loved to laugh with her. Her giggling was contagious. She was extremely open about her breast cancer, all of the women were, especially about losing their hair. On the second to last day of camp I was on the water in an inflatable kayak and she looked at me and said, “do you like that thing?”. She was soooooo nervous about Graduation Day that she wanted to make sure she had an alternative to being in a regular kayak. On the final day, she was still really nervous, but pushed herself to finish the day, and finish it strong. The staff, especially a guy named “Raz”, was amazingly patient and encouraging with her and really helped her to exceed her goals for the week. I know that like many others that week, completing all 5 days on the water will help her to conquer so much more when she is back home.
“Peanut” was our youngest participant for the week. He is 18 yrs. old and has Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, and is currently in remission. Peanut received his name because he is allergic to peanuts, and as Camp Mom, I was so afraid that I would give him food with peanuts in it. It was fun to see Peanut really come out of his shell (no pun intended) over the course of the week. He seemed to really enjoy the kayaking and always had a smile on his face. It was the 2nd to last day of camp that I really saw Peanut shine and realized how much he loved camp. “Patch”, one of our volunteer safety boaters was helping “Polish” with a kayaking move called a Roll. Patch was working with Polish for a while and finally Polish got the move down. Out of nowhere Peanut comes up to Patch and says, with little kid excitement, “what did you tell him?” I am not explaining it well, but it was the sweetest thing you ever saw. Patch, who is an amazing volunteer and has been at FD for a few years, looks at Peanut and says, “do you want to try a roll?”. The smile on Peanut’s face was huge and the excitement was so clear, it was a great moment. For the rest of the day Peanut practiced and practiced his Roll and he got it – everyone at camp was so excited for him!!! Peanut is going to the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee in the fall and I know that he will do great. Such a great kid!!! Yes, he is a kid to me, so young!!!
“Bumps” is a 32 year old with Breast Cancer, which has been in remission since 2007. She got her name because she got “bumped” off her flight on arrival day and got to camp late. She would rather you think it is her for her reconstruction surgery of her breasts. That pretty sums her up. She was quite the character all week. Bumps was highly emotional by the events of camp and really enjoyed being away from home for the week. She has two children and this was the first time she has had time to herself and seemed to really need it.
“Turby” is a 45 year old woman, the oldest FD camper ever, and had breast cancer in 2007. She is currently in remission and seemed to make a lot of strides at camp. After the first day of kayaking she decided that she had had enough and was wondering what her other options were for the second day. We all thought she was kidding … she wasn’t. The great thing is that she improved so much every day on the water and seemed to really enjoy it. She never once “swam “(had to get out of the kayak and swim to shore) which no one could believe at the end of the week. She is another one of the participants that arrived at camp extremely quiet, but seemed to benefit a lot while being there. Since camp, she has had some great postings on Facebook about her ability to do more, have more energy and attributing all of it to her week at FD Camp 33. I am glad to see that because I knew she really like her week, but it is great to see the post – camp feelings and learn what the participants took home with them. And that they are using what they learned at camp in their regular lives. Way to Go Turby!!