Sitting cross-legged at Eden Prairie’s Camp Eden Wood, a group of five 6-year-olds and five adult camp counselors toss a bundle of yarn around their circle, wrapping a loop around their wrist before passing it on.
“This is to show us that we’re all connected and we all have something in common,” a counselor tells her group.
At Camp Angel, it’s cancer that connects each of these campers. Run by the Angel Foundation, the three-day camp is a program for children with a parent or caregiver who was diagnosed with cancer, some of them before they were old enough to talk.
This is eight-year-old Jake’s third year at Camp Angel (Eden Prairie News is using pseudonyms for campers to protect their privacy). His mom was diagnosed with colon cancer two months after he was born, he said, and he doesn’t really talk about it with his school friends. Camp Angel is a place where he can meet other kids and not feel alone, he explained − and play his favorite game, gaga ball.
“I feel happy and comfortable,” Jake said. “I feel more confident.”
Angel Foundation founder Margie Sborov noticed a need for a place like Camp Angel 14 years ago. While there are many resources for people with cancer, she saw a gap where the families of cancer patients weren’t receiving the support they needed. In particular, Sborov wanted to help parents talk with their young children about cancer, give financial aid to families struggling to pay for summer camps while managing health care costs and provide a “respite” for children who feel isolated by their cancer experience.
“They’re the ones who are suffering the most because they’re the ones who don’t have control,” she said. “Their friends don’t understand, nor should they understand ... Here, everybody can talk about it.”
The goal is to balance the silly and the serious to give campers a normal summer camp experience. It must be working, because nearly half of the campers are returning from past years, and at the August session, nine of the older teens donned pink shirts to become teen mentors. They help run activities, talk through difficult feelings with the campers, and serve as role models for the younger children.
“It was successful right from the beginning,” Sborov said. “Kids always respond better to other kids.”
“You lead the kids and have the heart-to-hearts with them too,” said teen mentor Alexis Slater, of Grantsburg. The 15-year-old first attended camp as a fourth grader after her mom’s cancer diagnosis. (She’s been in remission for three years, Slater added.)
Camp Angel’s teen mentors were a lifeline, she said.
“I can talk to people, but not everybody gets it,” Slater said. “The fact that I had a role model was really important.”
Having a place to learn and process feelings is vital to the grieving process, said Michaela Janssen, a licensed professional clinical counselor at the Family Means Center for Grief and Loss who is not associated with the Angel Foundation. She specializes in grief counseling for young people ages 7-25 and noted that for children, dealing with a cancer diagnosis feels like losing a parent because it changes their relationship and how the parent is able to care for their child. It’s important to give a child age-appropriate information about cancer instead of leaving kids in the dark, she said.
“Kids are aware, they’re smart, they’re going to know if there’s a change in their family,” Janssen said. “It’s important for parents and caregivers to be honest with their responses... it’s OK to say ‘I don’t know.’”
For Emily Rezac, who runs Camp Angel, the weekend is a chance for kids to be kids without the responsibility of taking care of their family.
“They’ve all been forced to grow up rather quickly,” said Rezac, the Facing Cancer Together program manager. “It’s called upon quicker than other kids.”
This is Jess’s seventh year at Camp Angel (Eden Prairie News is using pseudonyms for campers to protect their privacy). When her family found the Angel Foundation in a basket full of pamphlets about cancer programs, Camp Angel became a place where the 17-year-old could talk about her difficult feelings without fear that she’ll hurt her family’s feelings, she said, and the rest of her family found helpful programs, too.
“We had a huge event happen in our lives and we needed a support community somewhere,” Jess explained.
Jess was a teen mentor for four years but returned as a camper this year because the mentor program requires a year off after a death in the family. Her father died in April. It’s frustrating to not be able to work with the younger campers, she said, but she understands why she can’t be a mentor this year.
“I recognize it’s probably a bit beyond my emotional capabilities,” Jess said.
Still, she was looking forward to the weekend, reconnecting with old friends and making new ones.
“Once you’re with Camp Angel, you stay with Camp Angel,” Jess said. “You’re not just going to leave your family.”