It’s a celebration of life for 77 pint-sized cancer survivors who gathered Saturday for their first day of summer camp at Birch State Park.
“This is a celebration of survival. This is a family that’s a fraternity, and the hazing is chemo,” said camp director Aley Sheer, who’s led Camp Fiesta since its inception. “I didn’t think it was going to be a lifetime commitment. I thought we’d cure cancer by now.”
Since 1985, the pediatric oncology camp organized by The Children’s Cancer Caring Center based at Baptist Children’s Hospital in Miami-Dade County has welcomed children diagnosed with cancer but in remission.
They’re paired up with camp counselors who are former cancer-stricken camp kids themselves.
Christy Nelson, a counselor who was diagnosed with leukemia at 7, returns each year to offer hope and answers.
“Camp Fiesta was definitely the very best time of my childhood and summers,” said Nelson, 27, an event coordinator from Margate. “It’s only nine days, but it is that amazing.”
Tanya Fresneda, 32, of West Palm Beach, is now a Palm Beach County Sheriff’s case worker, but also volunteers as a camp counselor.
“I want them to have the same opportunities I had. I remember feeling alone, scared, and I didn’t have many friends who understood,” she said, “It was a time I could actually talk about my cancer.”
“[Camp Fiesta] was my second home. For most of these kids it becomes a home,” she said.
The camp, valued at $4,000 per participant, is free for the children.
Amid a shady canopy of trees, excited children and their parents lugged bags for a nine-day stay inside cabins with bunk beds. Fun-filled days will include canoeing, swimming, arts and crafts, and games. Kids also go to Disney World and Universal Studios in Orlando.
Camp activities are typical — what’s not are the conversations about coping with cancer, chemotherapy, hair loss, and isolation and bullies at school. At camp, kids don’t have to worry about explaining why they have scars on their chests for ports that feed cancer-fighting medicines into their bodies.
Being at camp builds up children’s confidence, boosts their spirits and allows them to feel like they fit in, said parent Veronica Izquierdo, whose 11-year-old daughter, Kayla, has leukemia.
“I expect to have fun,” said Kayla, whose short brown curls framed her face. “It makes me forget that I have cancer. We just make jokes.”
Eric Farlow, 18, is a counselor in training who was diagnosed with leukemia a day before his 13th birthday. The camp is life-changing, he said.