Monday, July 27, 2009

First Descents 2009 Montana Camp Blog

Dear Allan . . .

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.

This year I was confused and finding it hard to find the words to describe camp. I found myself really missing Allan the first few days. He was supposed to know what I was doing, that I was there again and that all of his hard work was still paying huge dividends. On the 3rd night of camp, I suddenly had a strong desire to talk to Allan and tell him everything about the past year and about my current week at camp. As soon as I realized how badly I needed to “talk” to him, the thoughts and emotions came pouring out onto my computer keyboard.

Below are a series of daily letters to Allan. It is because of him that First Descents has touched my life and changed it forever!! I don’t know if I have ever given serious thought to the after-life, but I have a good feeling that Allan knows everything that I wrote to him and am about to share with you.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Dear Allan,

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.

I am at my 2nd camp as I write this to you. Yes, they still call me “Stepmom” . . . which I love. Going in, I was nervous and unsure that this year would be able to surpass last year. Last year was full of such raw emotion following your passing and the experience exceeded any expectations of which I could have ever dreamed. Today is the 3rd day of my 2nd year and it is completely different than last year. But (it’s good, keep reading) I am loving it and am having a totally different experience. Am I the luckiest person ever? I think so!! The campers this year are calm, mellow and slow to come out of their shells (as opposed to the boisterous group of personalities at my 1st camp last year). Today was a breakthrough day. For starters, it has rained the first two days and today the sun came out . . . which didn’t suck . . . and we were all able to escape the kitchen! More importantly, I had two really meaningful conversations with two different campers, one on an afternoon hike and the other while sitting around the campfire. By the way, do you have any idea how much I talk about you while I am at camp? So many people knew who you were and have so many amazing things to say about you. I feel so happy to be carrying on, even in my own small way, the work that you were unable to finish.

My favorite of the two conversations today was with a camper named “Polish” – I do love everyone’s nicknames. The granting of nicknames on day 1 to every camper, volunteer, pet, etc. is one of my favorite traditions of camp. The really cool thing is to watch each participant grow into their names and, as they do, they become more and more a part of camp. Anyway, Polish has a rare cancer that normally affects 50-year olds. Unfortunately, he is 22. He is a volunteer for the Immerman Angels cancer foundation in Chicago and that is how he arrived at FD. We talked about our common connection to FD through Immerman Angels employee Laura Alexander (small world - Laura’s father and Brent’s father grew up together in Cleveland) and also talked about all of the work he is doing for them. His exterior is a little guarded, but after talking to him for over an hour, I realized that he has a heart of gold. He is going to the University of Michigan in the fall to get the same Masters degree that you got from Harvard and will be studying for an MBA at the same time. I told him all about you and your vision with FD. I started to tear up when he said, “your friend sounds like an amazing guy, how do I get to meet him?” He would have been just one of the many lives you would have touched if you were still here. I am confident that he will be successful in whatever field his career will take him and my guess is that you had the same passion as he does and I can only hope that he is half as successful as you were.

The other camper I spent some time with today is named “Townie”. She is a local Montana girl, aged 36, who just finished her chemotherapy 2 months ago for Breast Cancer. Her first day she arrived quiet (this whole group is fairly quiet, but they get a little more talkative everyday) and asked for an assortment of things (teas, sugars, etc.). All of the staff pegged her as the “nice” pain-in-the-ass for the week. We were so wrong! She is kind and sweet, scared, and seems to have gone through a lot of her chemo alone. Her family is on the east coast and, although she has a lot of friends here, I get the sense that she was most likely not that fulfilled mentally before her cancer and is now in a little bit of funk with life. In case you didn’t know, the US economy sucks right now and so many people are out of work. She is one of the many affected by the economy and when you add cancer to the mix . . . well, let’s just say that her life is a little out of whack at the moment. Not to mention that she has fallen in love with someone who will be having a stem cell treatment next month. Cancer really does suck!!!!

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

Hey Allan,

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!!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Magic of First Descents - Montana - July, 2008

Thursday July 10, 2008.

Off on an adventure .... something I have not done in a long time. I’m going somewhere I know very little about, know very few people and have only had snippets of what to expect. Scared, excited, anxious -- knowing that the end result should be amazing, but still hesitant. Brent asked me who was picking me up at the airport. I think it will be Whitney Lange. Did I know what she looked like? Would I remember meeting her from the Gala in March?

I am really missing Allan right now. He was so sure that I was going to love this week and do a great service to these campers. I hope so. It has been a tough week without him. Going through his apartment, having Arlyn ask a lot of good questions, watching my husband struggle with the loss of his best and oldest friend.

The one thing I know without even arriving in Montana is how important it is to have First Descents continue to grow and for Brent to stay involved. Maybe it would not be the last place that Allan would work, but his message about young adults with cancer was always so strong -- there are no other programs like it. And as a tribute to Allan for his family and for our kids, I hope that Brent will continue this in Allan’s memory. Allan spent a lifetime of helping others, and now it is important that we continue to do this work for him in anyway we can.

I am off to Montana. Full of emotion of loss, sadness and excitement.

Okay, I arrived at camp and the first 10 minutes were the longest of my entire life. Whitney did not do the best job of introducing me and everyone here goes by a nickname. So I was introduced to 2 guys -- Mateo, and another one whose name I still don’t know. The girls who I met were Truffles, Too Tall and Care Bear. I felt like a fish out of water and beyond.

2 hours later I am already feeling more comfortable and they have started calling me Step Mom. They gave it to me when they found out I would be working with Ginny Ludden, Brad’s mom.

Truffles’ real name is Ella and Care Bear’s real name is Carrie. Too Tall I still do not know and they said that you normally don’t find out until the last night of camp. They have each been here a few times and LOVE it!! Truffles and Care Bear are in remission. They have already informed me that when someone tells you that they have cancer, don’t talk quietly and say you are so strong and so brave. They think that they just did what they had to do.

Friday, July 11th

Last night we all went out to a bar for dinner. There were 11 of us -- new campers and staff from the previous week. The past staff had what they called a “very intense and difficult” week. They had a lot of great campers, but apparently two were quite difficult. I got forewarned on how to deal with many issues for the upcoming week. The best part of the night is that everyone is so inclusive. And young. I feel old at 40 with 3 kids. I can already tell though that I will be learning a lot this week. One of the campers told me that the best part of camp is that they can be so comfortable with each other and make fun of cancer, chemotherapy and radiation. When it is discussed at home, people tend to get upset with them and don’t want them to talk like that. It is very cool to see on the first day what these camps mean to these people.

When we got home from the bar last night, at 1:00 a.m., the sky was filled with so many stars. A sign of a good day to come.

Friday, July 11th, 2:30 pm

WOW -- this place has totally come alive in the past few hours. The whole staff arrived around 11:30am and I have never seen such a transformation in a place. The few campers that were here have been here before, so everyone was so excited to see everyone. And for me and a couple others who didn’t know anyone, we were just pulled in as part of this amazing FD family. I have to say that I was hesitant this morning, but those thoughts are out the door.

Ginny Ludden is beyond what anyone could even describe. What an incredible, kind, thoughtful and warm woman. Everyone calls her Mama Ludden. This is her 4th week this summer and she just has the whole thing down. The campers were all so excited to see her and she them. It is amazing to see the bonds that have formed and lasted over the last 8 summers.

It was time for lunch and the whole place descended on the kitchen to help. Staff, camplers (sort of like CIT’s, a camper and counselor), campers, everyone! It was amazing that everyone here feels so passionately about camp and works together to make it great. It is as if everyone checks their “issues” at the door and the common goal here is an amazing week of talking, kayaking, learning, laughing and I’m sure some crying.

Ginny and I were talking about the nicknames that everyone has -- no one goes by their first name -- and she said a reporter who did a story a few years back said that it seems that it allows everyone to leave their problems behind and spend the week with a new identity . . . one that they are unable to have at home with friends, family and doctors. I thought that described personally what everyone was feeling.

I have finally learned what I will be doing here - making breakfast, lunch and being a “true” mom. Laundry, bathrooms, making sure lunches are packed, jackets and day bags are taken on the river, and even looking at possible splinters.

As I sit on the deck, which is just a beautiful spot with the mountains and river to my right and the lawn in front of me, I can understand why Allan found this place so special. It is hard to describe in words what goes on here. The mixing of individuals to help make this a very special experience for the campers. And the campers are in the mix helping right alongside the staff.

The funny part about being here is how much everyone loves to eat and discuss food. The whole day is planned around 3 meals and any and all snacks that are available. They all talk about how they gain at least 10 pounds while they are here. I may have to bring them all home with me.

The rest of the campers are on their way. There will be 12 campers this week, 8 women and 4 men. The sleeping quarters are tight, but I lucked out with my own room. Pheeeeew!! And I’m so glad I am not in an RV -- no bathrooms in those things. So far the campers are Truffles, Too Tall, Care Bear, Charmed, Spaz, and Sassy. The staff names that I can remember are Beamer, Crabs, Switz, Smelly, Woogs, Googly Bear. By the end of the week I should have everyone straight.

Friday Night, July 11th, 10:30 p.m.

The 1st day of camp has come to a close. It was a great day!! All of the campers have arrived and have been properly “nicknamed”. It is amazing to watch people’s reactions to the nicknaming and how easily all of them took to it.

Everyone got “suited” for a dry suit, life vest, water shoes, helmet and anything else that they needed for the 1st day on the river. It is truly a group effort to get every camper on the river each day. “Crabs” (not sure if he had them, or likes to eat them) is the equipment director, “LSD” (little swinging dick, used to be BSD) coordinates the vans and shuttling of the equipment and people, and Brad and Corey made sure everyone had the right size kayak.

In between all of this, the food was coming and going. Lunch was from 12:30-2, Snacks from 3:45-5, and dinner from 5:30-7. I washed and dried more dishes than I probably have in the last 10 years. Food was set up, food was put away, food was set up, food was put away. And the story will go for the week.

We had a staff meeting after dinner and it was to discuss each camper and their needs. There are 3 campers here who are susceptible to seizures, so we had to go over what to do if they have one. Another is allergic to nuts. One gentleman’s skin is so thin that the goal this week is to not have him scrape himself. The counselors (who are on the river with the campers all day), the river support, and even us camp moms all need to understand each camper and their special needs. Even the basic stuff of who gets cold and who needs what items with them during the days and nights. A lot of thought has gone into planning these weeks of camp and it is so great to see it all unfold. The camper/staff ratio is 1:1. This is especially great for those who will need special attention on the river.

We had a campfire tonight with everyone. Tons of laughter. Everyone seems very good natured and excited to be here. The campers range in ages from 19-40. Everyone went around the circle and stated their name . . . well, nickname anyway. And of course there is always the peanut gallery making comments and everyone cracking up. I sat next to a woman named “Mork” (yes, her real name is Mindy). Most people here have never even heard of the show which is even funnier. She is a 40 year old woman with Stage 4 Breast Cancer. It is everywhere in her body and yet she is here and looking forward to a great week. The strength and spirit of these people is truly amazing.

The most important thing that I learned tonight is that while FD has been doing the camps for 8 years, their original target audience was 15-25. It was actually Allan who came along a few years ago and convinced the FD Board of Directors to switch the focus to 18-40 as this was the age group that he believed was so under-served. It has turned out that he was right on the money, as FD continues to grow with this young adult community.

Saturday, July 12th, 8pm

What a day! I hope that my words can capture the essence of the entire day. I was up at 6:30 and was the 2nd one in the kitchen. Shocking that Mama Ludden was up, cleaning bathrooms and getting breakfast on the table. The rest of breakfast was like a scene from Big Chill. Smelly was the next one in. She starting making eggs over easy and Canadian Bacon -- yummy breakfast. By around 7:45 the entire staff and campers were in the kitchen, eating, talking and working around each other. It is not a very big kitchen, but it just worked. And it set the tone for the rest of the day.

At 8:30 we were off to the lake. Everyone was excited and ready to go!! Snacks and drinks were packed, kayaks and paddles were loaded, campers and staff piled into 4 vans and we were off. The organization and seamlessness of the morning was truly something to see. This is an amazing group of people and everyone cannot help each other enough.

We drove into Glacier National Park -- absolutely gorgeous -- and parked at Lake McDonald. What an amazing sight to see. Calm, beautiful blue water against majestic mountains and perfectly colored sky, and not a cloud to be seen. It was absolutely breathtaking.

Everyone suited up and was ready to go. We had about 30-35 kayaks ready -- the ratio of staff to camper is 2 to 1 in the water. Corey, Brad, Woogie, Pez, Smelly, Post, Crabs, Fitzie, Patch and all of the staff were amazingly energetic from the minute we arrived at the dock until the end of the day. I have never seen so much enthusiasm and genuine excitement. It is a feeling that is pretty hard to describe. Campers got in their kayaks and were immediately being taught how to paddle, how to improve their past experience and strongly and effortlessly encouraged to push themselves and “Never Give Up” (thank you Smelly and Woogs).

We all paddled around for about 45 minutes practicing “Wet Exit” where you flip over and have to get yourself out of the kayak. I was really scared, but again the patience and encouragement of the staff allayed any concerns. At the end of the week everyone jumps off a bridge 25 feet into the river. I’m sure they will be able to help me to do that too. I don’t have enough words to describe it.

My favorite part of the day was next when we had a polo match while in our kayaks. Everyone played and it was the most fun I have had in a long time. People were so into it and again the staff made the campers feel like a million bucks. There was laughter, competitiveness (Brad!) and just some good old fashioned fun. No thoughts of cancer, disease, treatment stage, etc. The level of excitement and energy on the water was truly indescribable.

Sunday, July 13th, 6pm

I have to finish writing about yesterday. After water polo -- my absolute favorite part of the day -- we kayaked down the water in Class 1 - 1.5 rapids. It was so much fun. And Montana is absolutely gorgeous. Not to mention that the weather was perfect!!! I only “swam” once -- that means my kayak flipped and I had to get myself out of the kayak and swim to shore while someone brought me my boat. I got caught getting out of the eddy (the smooth part of the water) and into the flowing water. I panicked for half a second but then did what I was taught and got out. Very exciting!!

I spent a long time talking with Woogie (Angela Rossi) and Beamer (Bryan?). They are both amazing people and we talked about Allan for a long time. Woogie is really special -- funny, kind, warm -- and was very close to Allan. She was asking me a lot of questions and filling me in on lots of different stuff. Beamer also knew Allan very well in that he is a FD camper and very involved in the organization. He spoke at the FD Gala this past March and was absolutely amazing!!! It was so good to talk with them, helped me know more about Allan from a totally different perspective and learn how much he was liked and respected in Vail. I don’t know why, but the conversation felt very uplifting and gave me a strange and wonderful strength to move on in my loss of a friend. And Beamer must have felt the same way because later that night when everyone talked about their favorite part of their day, he talked about the meaningful talk that he and I had. Of course it brought tears to my eyes. Shocking, I know.

Monday, July 14th

Last night was really nice. We finished the day with everyone going around the room talking about their favorite part of the day. It was another incredible scene of selflessness as everyone was excited to be having a great time sharing in other people’s successes. Too Tall called it FD Magic and that is as close as I can come to explaining this place. It is magical. People have checked their attitudes and issues at the door and are truly here for the good of the group. A couple of the campers told me after the ‘good and welfare’ that they were so psyched to see the other campers doing well in the water. It was really cool to see the excitement in their eyes and hear the sincerity in their voices.

I don’t think I have mentioned the total group. Nor have I mentioned how well all 13 campers have gelled. Not to mention the 15+ staff. Only one camper is not really within the group, but that is more a matter of his health than anything. NOTE: Urn had a bad 1st day, but he improved every day and became a huge part of the group.

Monday, July 14th, 9:50 pm

Today was another magical day in this amazing place. Let me first start off by saying that Urn, who did not seem to me to be having a great day yesterday, had an amazing day today. He got in the “Duckie” (inflatable kayak for 2 people) and seemed to really enjoy himself. The rest of the day he was extremely talkative and looking like he was having a great day.

Yesterday I was so jealous not to be in the kayak when we were in the water. Today was a totally different story. The campers and staff were all in Topo’s (2 person hard kayaks) and Duckies. The rapids were I think category 2’s and 3’s and the campers were all having a blast. Not to mention that their kayaking skills have improved tremendously over the last 3 days. No, I am not an expert, but they were moving through the water with that look of ease and so much excitement. The energy on the water was addictive and you could feel it on the raft. I had that sense of selflessness that everyone else has here. They were having an absolutely great day. Too Tall was in a Duckie with Urn and she did an amazing job -- she is a campler (camper/counselor in training) and showed so much poise and strength. She is 22 years old and is so mature it amazes me. I hope that she always feels this connected to FD.

Another person who has been amazingly strong is Ace. She came to camp so quiet and said almost nothing. On the first day she was chosen to do the “wet exit” demonstration and the poor thing was so nervous. Who wouldn’t be in front of 35 strangers?!! At the demo it took her what felt like a long time before she would do it. Today there was a new person on the river. She was in a Topo with Corey and she had the biggest smile on her face that I ever saw. She was beaming. And yesterday, she won the LifeJacket Award.

After a long day of shuttling cars, vans and trucks to the right places on the river and an incredible day of Alternative Day we headed back to camp. Upon arrival it was time for yet another meal. What a shock!! Love these people, they are always hungry and they eat!!!

We then took 2 vans to the summit at Glacier National Park. The entrance to the park is about 10 minutes away from camp. The ride to the summit with a lot of stops and construction took 2 hours. It was a long trip, but the park is beautiful and because of all the snowfall, there are gorgeous waterfalls everywhere. Brent and I have been here before, but it is like Vail, you never get sick at looking at the beauty of the mountains/valleys/waterfalls.

On the way back down the summit, Sassy and Balboa were talking about losing friends once they were diagnosed with cancer. Balboa described it as a drop of dish soap put into a hot pan of oil. They both concurred that a lot of people stopped calling, did not invite them to do things and pretty much dropped the friendships. Switz and I were amazed. I would never have believed it if they both hadn’t been sitting there.

We continued talking the entire way down and then Switz asked Balboa when he was diagnosed. Balboa is a 37 year old from Spokane, has a wife and 2 kids, ages 6 an 3 and has colorectal cancer (?) that has spread to his entire body. I mentioned earlier that he fired his oncologist because he had given up on him. Today we had a very intense conversation and he really opened up about his situation and how he felt. The most striking part of the story is when he talked about his bad days and when he has them his wife takes the girls out of the house so that he can be alone and feel better. He says watching them leave the house makes him think that his wife is preparing for a life without him. It breaks his heart. As he is telling us this story, he is crying so openly and of course so am I. He continues talking about how he is a man always in control and that the worst part of cancer is that he cannot control it. He talked about the mental challenge of cancer and how you have to be ready for it, and how he comes unglued if someone has cancer and is not taking an active roll in their treatment. The entire conversation was amazing and I felt privileged to that he talked so openly with me. The other great part of the story is how 3 days at FD have moved him so much. He absolutely loves the physical achievements that he has accomplished, but the mental side is equally and if not more important. Being here means that he is not different . . . he is like everyone else. I think that the mental relief for him is amazing and as the girls would say “he gets it”

The best part of the day was yet to come. Every day at the end of the day 3 awards are given out. The Paddle Award for a person who is doing an amazing job off the water. The lifejacket award for someone who had a great day on the water. And the turtle award is for someone who is fun, entertaining, sweet, etc. The first night of camp the staff picks out the recipient of each award and then after that the person who received the award is in charge of passing it on the next day. Tonight I received the Paddle Award from Truffles. She started off by saying “I met this person on the first day of camp, she asked a lot of questions, she was very nervous and very filled with emotion.” At that point everyone knew it was me. She went on to say so many nice things. Yes, I was teary . . . and then everyone in the room clapped and was cheering for me. It was really amazing and so thoughtful. I was so excited that I fit into this very unique and wonderful family and that they were happy to have me.

The other cool thing is that right before the “meeting,” Crabs came up to me and told me that I was doing a great job. To me, this whole week has been a no brainer. These survivors/fighters are amazing. They push themselves and “No” is not a word they will listen to. Their strength, enthusiasm and energy continue to make me feel weak, but each day I am finding all of these things contagious. When I arrived I was thinking about Allan and his determination to live and not burden anyone. I’m not sure that I would have the strength to do the same if I were the cancer patient. It’s crazy, but these people have taught me more about strength and toughness and life-affirming will in 3 days than I could ever hope to learn in a lifetime.

Wednesday, July 16th, 11:59pm (yes, I am still awake!)

This has been another amazing day -- not sure how they pull it off every day. Each day is honestly better than the last. Tonight was truly powerful. It was an evening filled with buckets and buckets of tears and more meaningful words and hugs than I could ever have imagined.

After 2 1/2 hours of Polish Horseshoes where Corey and Too Tall won the Championship, we had a dessert celebration. We celebrated Sassy’s 5 years of being cancer free (Too Tall and Care Bear’s suggestion) and Ace’s birthday.
It was a great start to the final night festivities.

We sat around the campfire talking about everyone’s favorite part of the week. I doubt that I got my point across . . . I hate speaking in front of big groups. I tried to speak about the awesome experience that I was so lucky and appreciative to share this week at camp. From seeing the campers succeed, to seeing how much goes into the behind the scenes day-to-day, and realizing that this place is so much more unique, special and just plain awesome than anyone could have ever explained. The group of 13 campers and uncountable staff just got along so well and there was just so much positive energy the entire week. Other people talked about the graduation rapid (more on that later), the warmth of the people, Corey’s toenail (inside joke) and most importantly about the jumping mamas -- another story to be told later.
After everyone went around the circle talking, we finished with Mork who is so amazing in so many ways. She had such a great week and was so emotional when talking about her time here and what FD has meant to her. It was a perfect ending to that part of the evening. She has strength that I could only hope to have. She has cancer throughout her entire body, stage 4, and yet found the strength to come her for a week, become a strong kayaker, and looked better today than on the day she arrived.

The next ceremony that we did was the Baci Bracelets. Brad learned of this while traveling in Laos. The main gist of the ceremony is to have another person tie a white ribbon around your wrist and say 3 prayers. Of course Mama Ludden had to be the one to say my prayers for me. It would only be appropriate as we have formed this amazing bond this week. I, of course, cried the entire time.

The last ceremony was the most meaningful and most beautiful. It happened over 1 1/2 hours ago and I still cannot stop crying. We walked down to the swimming pool. Brad spoke -- man, can he ever speak from the heart . . . he is truly unbelievable. He explained that to end the week of camp, everyone would be given a candle to put into the water to make a wish for whatever they wanted. In addition they always light a candle for all campers who have passed, and that this year a special candle would be lit for Allan Goldberg and explained to everyone who did not already know that Allan had passed away a month ago. He asked that the candle for Allan be passed to “Stepmom” and I started hysterically crying and shaking. I was already so filled with emotion and this felt so scary and important to make sure that I said the right prayers for everyone there and a very special message to Allan. Yes, I am bawling as I write this. But it feels good and I am so happy to get this all down. And I am actually sitting outside on the deck looking down at the pool. It is so beautiful and a memory that I will never forget. Googly Bear was hugging me while I was holding the candle. She and Corey were close to Allan and she knew that I was having a hard time all week. It seemed like every time I turned around I was explaining to someone how I got to FD and went on to talk about all of the vision and success Allan had with FD. As I was holding the candle thinking of Allan smiling down on me, I decided it was only appropriate for his to be the first candle in the water. In a strange way, I think everyone was waiting for me to make the first move. I have never appreciated patience so much in my life. I needed those moments to really reflect on this amazing week and to thank Allan for that and for so many other wonderful things he has done for my family. The love he felt for Brent and my girls was amazing and all of this emotion was coming down on me like a heavy downpour. I finally composed myself and put the candle in the water. So glad to feel like I did it right. I know it sounds crazy but the whole time I held that candle I could hear Allan’s voice and see his big smile on his face. Afterwards, as people started to walk into the main house, so many people came up to me and gave me so much love and great big hugs. Beemer said to me on the first day that Allan was here, he came up to me tonight and gave me a big hug and asked me if I could feel him? I could and I still do. I know now that I have to come back here every summer and light that candle for Allan and help to continue on what he started. I know he knew how good it was, but I want to help make it great!!

Thursday, July 17th, 2:30pm

I am sitting in the Kalispell airport waiting for my flight back to Denver. The goodbyes were not as hard as I thought until I saw Balboa sitting on the couch with Mork. He was teary and then I got teary.

I still want to talk about the day yesterday. It was so great. We left camp and it was overcast and drizzly, but by the time we got to the “put in” the sun was shining and we were in for a great day. I was pretty excited myself because when we were done shuttling, I was going in the double/duo “duckie” (inflatable kayak) with Mama Ludden. I enjoyed being on the raft for the past few days, but I was excited to get back on the River again. And the campers were having so much fun. I was psyched to get in on it. When I got in, I was a little nervous, but I assumed Mama Ludden knew what she was doing. I asked her how many times she had been in the duckie and she said “never”. And off we went. duckie is different from a kayak in that it sits higher above the water and is much less likely to turn over. The first big rapid we went through was Can Opener (?) and it was huge and awesome. I was in the front seat where you get major-eague splashed with water and it was a blast. At one point, Mama Ludden is yelling “paddle, paddle!” But I couldn’t even see -- I forgot for a moment that I was not on a ride at Hershey Park, but on an actual river where I had to be careful. After every rapid the kayakers “eddy” out and talk about the next big rapid coming up. It was so great to be right in the mix with them. This was their “graduation day” and they were doing some serious kayaking and loving every minute of it. It was hard to believe that they all learned how to do this just 5 days ago. They were moving through the water with such ease, their success was the counselors pride. Googly Bear got in the river halfway down and it was good to learn some new things from her. She is awesome and we had such a good time.

At the eddy before the last rapid, Corey told us to go down to the next eddy because the campers were going to go down the last rapid one at a time. We got down and found a good spot to watch them. First the counselors came down and it was strange to see them by themselves. So now all of the staff, probably around 25-30 people were sitting below the rapid waiting. Balboa was the first one down and everyone was shouting, whistling and cheering. He jumped out of his kayak so quickly so that he could cheer on his fellow campers -- love his energy!! And one by one each camper came down the rapid and they all did great. It is hard to explain, but the graduation rapid was one of the most emotional and beautiful things to watch. The noise from the counselors and the confidence of the campers was amazing. I was sitting with Googly and we were so excited for each of them to get through the rapid successfully. Like proud parents. Later on in the evening when everyone spoke about their favorite part of the week, graduation rapid was a lot of people’s favorite. The teamwork, the togetherness, the whole week just all came together. I didn’t think that the days could get better and here I was for the 100th time thinking FD is so cool. What an amazing dream that Brad had. And how lucky he was to have Corey, Chuck and Mama Ludden to make it all come to life? And how lucky was I to now be a part of this special FD family.

After graduation rapids everyone started asking “can we jump, can we jump?” They were all talking about “the jump” from the Old Bridge. It was a tradition at camp and the campers were all so pumped from Graduation Rapid that it was now time for another challenge. A few days before when I was talking with Mama Ludden she told me that in 20 years she has never jumped off the bridge, but if I would do it, she would do it with me. Lisa Goldstein would never have jumped off that bridge, but Stepmom was another story. I was so inspired by camp, the campers and the staff that I did not want to miss out on any part of camp experience. And I knew that if I went home and didn’t do it, I would regret it for the entire year. Not to mention that I would have to wait 12 months to try it again. I was in!! It was amazing. Mama Ludden and I got out of the water, and just ran up to the jump spot. We didn’t look down, we barely spoke and on the count of 3 ... we jumped!!! It was scary as hell, but it was awesome!! Everyone was cheering and yelling. The best part is that when I came up from under the water (my butt never hurt so bad from hitting the water) Mama Ludden had this huge smile on her face and gave me a high five. We did it and we were both so excited. Later on that night when people were talking about their favorite part of the week, we were one of the highlights. Skrat named us the Jumping Mamas. In addition to our jump, Urn also jumped and the entire group was going wild. Although he did not spend a lot of time in the kayak, he was a big part of our group. His jumping was amazing and gave me chills that he jumped and how excited everyone got. Needless to say that is how our Google group name became Urn and the Jumping Mama’s. That jump that had my heart racing in fear for about 30 seconds gave me a high for at least 3 hours. And I know every time I see the picture, talk about it with someone or get a message from the google group I will be able to return some of that feeling. I know that if it weren’t for the campers amazing strength to learn and succeed at kayaking, I would never have done that!!

There are so many other stories that have popped into my head since I started writing. One of the most powerful stories of the week is Balboa. When Balboa arrived at camp he was a little guarded and not so sure that he was going to like camp. This is my own assessment. But after just 5 days, his trust, his emotions, his excitement were all out on the table for everyone to see. The transformation was unbelievable. He taught me so much in 5 days. At the last campfire Balboa said that he was so happy at camp that he wished that he could have a few more days. He wasn’t ready to leave this safe world where he felt so much trust in everyone there. For him, finding trust in so many new friends was such a new feeling. And he loved every minute of it.

Another strange thing happened while at camp. A long time ago Allan told me I must read a book called Shantaram. I didn’t even think twice about it. I went and bought it because I knew it had to be great. I couldn’t get into it and Allan was bummed. He thought I should have pushed harder to get into it. I have never found anyone who had read it and honestly have not thought about it since. Two times while at camp people were talking about this book and how great it was. I know it is a coincidence, but it really spooked me out the 2nd time it was brought up. Was Beemer right? Was Allan really there with all of us?

Thursday, July 17th, 6:55pm

I am back in Denver and walked with Urn to the baggage area. At lunch Urn had told me that he had driven himself to the airport and he was excited to get home and have some time to himself. His wife and daughter would be away. We got to the airport and Urn says, “there is my wife”. I said what a nice surprise and he said yeah. With his wife (who, by the way, was adorable) was a family friend. When I mentioned to her the story about the car, she said that he is not all there. It broke my heart.

Friday, July 18th, 8:15pm

As I re-read this my thoughts go back to my first night when Corey told me that this week would be one of healing. I thought he was crazy. I now realize that I will miss Allan a lot for the rest of my life, but what I take forward from here is his strength and vision. And all of the good that he put into FD -- an incredible organization.

I have donated time and money to plenty of charities in the past, but never have I had to chance to see first-hand where the money goes or what direct impact it has on its beneficiaries. The past week has shown that the money raised for FD has a direct and beautiful impact on its campers and volunteers. There may not be any medical data to support what each camper gets out of FD. Who knows whether an experience like camp can actually help cure the physical side of cancer. I have no doubts, however, that every camper left Montana healthier in mind, body and spirit than when they arrived. More importantly, no matter how long each of these campers live, whether it is 12 months or 50 years, I am sure that their lives will be fuller and richer as a result of this incredibly special and powerful experience. That is the magic of FD.