PRESCOTT - The boys trudge up the bank from the lake, faces flushed and sopping wet, algae hanging from their life vests.
They’ve tipped over as often as possible this morning, their joyous hoots and hollers matched only by those of their counselors.
As they await the van that will take them back to camp for lunch, Brandyn Orr of Mesa tumbles over a log and cuts his palm.
"I made it to 12:30 without dressing a wound!" counselor Chris Franzen boasts, then goes to work with a first-aid kit. Other boys look on as he gently takes Brandyn’s hand and prepares him for the sting of the cleansing cloth. "On the count of 3, stomp on my foot, OK? "
Brandyn, 10, gets a Band-Aid and heaps of praise for his bravery, and it’s shaping up to be a typical day at summer camp. But this isn’t a typical camper or a typical counselor or a typical camp. Brandyn had leukemia and Franzen’s little brother died of it. This is Camp Rainbow, a place of connections and courage, laughter and song, and an abundance of love. The 91 Arizona children
- attending the Phoenix Children’s Hospital’s weeklong camp just outside Prescott have been diagnosed with cancer. Some are being treated, others have gone years in remission. Nearly 20 are from the East Valley. All are here for free.
About half of the 35 volunteer counselors are former campers, having lived through the pain and fear that grips many of these kids.
"It was my only social life. I knew I had friends here," said counselor Jill Gibney, 24. The recent Arizona State University graduate began coming to camp after her diagnosis at age 9 of Ewing’s sarcoma, a type of bone cancer. Her younger brother, Evan, is a counselor, too.
"Here, we could just be normal," Gibney said. "At school, I was always seen as the kid with cancer."
Normalcy is a huge part of Camp Rainbow, which opened in 1985 at the sprawling Friendly Pines Camp. There are the usual activities — archery, horseback riding, arts and crafts, swimming, fishing, tennis and canoeing. S’mores, campfires, sing-alongs and stories.
There’s a ropes course and a climbing wall, and everyone gets the chance to leave their cabins and camp in tents one night.
"This gives children a chance to escape the medications and doctor visits for awhile," said camp director Renee Hunte, who is director of psychosocial programs at the hospital’s Children’s Cancer Center. "They can see people who are surviving. They get so much information from their peers."
Watching another group of boys tackle the climbing wall, it’s difficult to tell what brought the campers here. Eleven-year-old Isaac Sneed of Mesa scrambles up and down the wall four times. Two years ago he had a 2-pound tumor removed from his kidney.
"Isaac’s a little Spider-Man," said counselor Matt Wolfe. Wolfe, 27, is the son of camp musician Woody Wolfe and paid his way from Atlanta to volunteer. "This is my vacation."
Some of the kids were so young they barely remember their surgery, but they still make regular hospital visits for blood tests.
Dalton Schrum of Mesa had a kidney removed along with his tumor, but his memories are dim. Hunte said he knows. "He says he can’t play football. Ever," she said.
The 9-year-old has been to camp several times and was eager to come back. "I wanted to see my old friends." he said.
In addition to boosting selfesteem, encouraging kids to overcome obstacles and try new things, Camp Rainbow offers some children their only camp experience. They marvel at the stars, the bugs, the smell of pine and the sounds at night.
There are fragile children here, too. Several are bald, or in various stages of regaining or losing their hair to chemotherapy. A few have had legs amputated, one young girl is blind. Nearly all bear long scars.
There is a team of pediatric oncology nurses and doctors on hand, as well as the counselors and support staff. These folks are in shorts and baseball caps, acting goofy, singing songs and for once not sticking them with needles. It has a healing effect for patient and care giver.
"The only time they see us is when their parents are crying or we’re giving them meds," said Dr. Michael Etzl, the cancer center’s medical director. "When things are bad and trying and we lose patients, we think of this place."
For Etzl and the nurses, camp also is payback time. The doctor has been turned into a chicken, covered with yellow goo and feathers and affixed with a beak. He’s been a human peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a walking ice cream sundae and painted head to toe. There is hope here, too. While an estimated 60 to 70 children will be diagnosed with cancer in Maricopa County this year, two out of three will be cured.
Counselors who were once campers return with college degrees, marriage plans and other big dreams.
Isaac Sneed’s mother doesn’t let her son spend the night at friends’ houses, but jumped at the chance to send him to camp for the first time.
"To send him up to Camp Rainbow is almost a spiritual thing," Theresa Sneed said. "To see his friends and rejoice that they are still in remission. And to have a great time."