It’s 6:30 a.m. I’m asleep … or at least I was asleep. Now there’s a 13-year-old camper kneeling beside my bunk, trying to glue my head to the pillow by smearing extra-hold hair gel all over one side of my face. It’s the first day and all his effort is bent on choking back his giggles.
The volunteer staff arrived at Camp Ronald McDonald for Good Times late the night before for three days of winter camp. The location is beautiful, nestled under the pitched peaks of the San Bernardino Mountains just outside of Idyllwild. In the warmth of the dining hall, counselors and campers group up by cabin, introduce themselves over hot chocolate and cookies, and head off to catch some shuteye.
Back at the homestead, before the lights out go out, my co-counselor and I draw up a list of cabin rules with the help of 10 young campers so excited to be there they are literally bouncing off the walls and swinging from the rafters. At their insistence we include some guidelines for pranks during the week. Little did I know, counselors are choice targets.
I let out a mock growl. The kid drops the bottle of gel and dashes to the other side of the cabin where he dives into his sleeping bag. The giggling is no longer restrained and he laughs out loud. As I rub the gel out of my ears and the sleep out of my eyes I can’t help but smile. That one event made his weekend. I was happy to be the dummy and, in retrospect, at least I can say I wasn’t the kid who got hit with the honey.
Don’t Bother Wearing a Tie
Since 1982 Camp Good Times has pursued its mission “to create a positive, long-lasting impact on children with cancer and their families by providing fun-filled, medically-supervised, cost-free, year-round camp programs.” True to the form of most charity organizations, the program relies heavily on volunteer staffing.
For over a decade, Camp Good Times has visited college campuses in southern California to collect new recruits. Out of those universities, UCSB has consistently furnished the largest number of new and returning volunteers, averaging about 40 out of the 300 that lend a hand each summer.
“We’re looking for the kind of students that appreciate what an outdoor environment can give to kids,” Camp Director Brian Crater said.
Interviews for potential counselors will take place tomorrow at the Community Affairs Board office in the UCen at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Each session lasts three hours, but the interviews are conducted in a large group and most of the time is spent mimicking a day at camp, playing games and maybe (if you’re lucky) singing a song.
Camp Good Times has been working with the CAB office, which provides information on over 500 volunteer opportunities to students, for the last couple of years. With so many hundreds of options, why choose camp?
“It’s about realizing there’s more to education than just books,” said Kristie Frasure, last year’s CAB chair and a four-time camp volunteer. “There’s a human element that’s missing. Camp and CAB try to give that back to society.”
Camp is divided into six one-week sessions per summer that welcome a total of 600 children. Volunteers that have completed one of those sessions can participate in one of three weekend-long winter camp sessions or a family camp session. Male volunteers are badly needed.
“What research has shown is that guys ignore more nurturing jobs when they are pushed to look for work,” said Lisa “Hollywood” Konruff, the assistant camp director. “They don’t think of camp, and they don’t take into account all the management and organization experience available there.”
Give and You Shall Receive
There is simply no way to quantify the sense of satisfaction that comes from reintroducing a sense of normalcy into the life a child that is forced to deal with disease on daily basis. “If you give us nine days, I’ll you an experience you’ll never forget,” Crater said.
Today a child diagnosed with cancer has an 85 percent chance of survival, up from 30 percent when the camp was founded 20 years ago. In that time, the camp has both expanded and changed its mission.
One week of the summer is no longer a last chance for the majority of pediatric cancer patients, and Camp Good Times has come to focus more on preparing campers for long and healthy life, Crater said. In addition, the program has expanded to address the larger impact of cancer on family structure.
Family camps give families with patients under seven the chance to get away. Siblings of cancer patients are also welcome free of charge until they reach 18, the age cap for all campers.
“You never know when kids are going to need that support,” Crater said. “It may be four years outside of remission.”
Camp Good Times features a fully equipped medical center with a round-the-clock nursing staff and pediatric oncologist. The facility is ready to meet emergency medical needs and children undergoing treatment may continue receiving it at camp. Though the camp draws students from many disciplines, pre-med students often volunteer.
“It’s a testing ground where you rub shoulders with doctors and nurses and see what they do,” Crater said. “It’s a place to develop good mentor relationships in a less clinical environment.”
The job is not easy. A number of campers have medical complications in addition to cancer, ranging from amputations to diabetes to Down syndrome. A popular camp motto, however, asserts “Always a challenge, never a problem.”
The corps of volunteers is hybrid of the younger and the older, and the program staff puts an amount of energy into support for counselors that is second only to that for the campers, Crater said. Some older staff members have been volunteering their time for more than a decade, while working in careers ranging from cinematography to engineering.
“It’s an eclectic mix,” said Ted Ward, who volunteered at camp before taking a job on staff as the associate program director.
How to Build a Camp
It costs $750 to send a kid to camp for a week. One hundred children attend each of six sessions. You do the math. It takes a lot of dollars to put on an operation like Camp Good Times. Fortunately, they have some wealthy friends.
The camp is a division of the Southern California Ronald McDonald House Charities. Fourteen percent of the annual $1.6 budget comes from the Southern California McDonald’s Operators’ Association. Private contributors and fundraisers provide the rest. The annual Halloween party draws $400,000 alone.
Camp Good Times has expanded slowly but steadily over the years. In 1994 it bought the 60 acres on which it now sits. Programs have expanded over the years to offer a full range of activities. The most recent addition is 50 ft. tower and ropes course.
A 25-member board administers the camp. The board has minor long-range infrastructure and buildings changes, but most of the capital still goes into the programs for campers, said Board President Fran Wiley, who also volunteers as one of the camp nurses.
“A successful charity organization has a single purpose and stays focused on it,” she said. “When you’re building a building, it can become your mission. We made a philosophic decision to stay committed to today’s kids before pursuing future goals.”