September 1984
Text: Cheryl McCall

Jennifer Turk (left) and Samantha Brais--both eight, both camp rookies and both undergoing chemotherapy for tumors-share a sweet moment of silliness."My hair fell out in clumps," says Samantha, "but I never minded."

The mystery man behind those goggles is new arrival Michael Covel, six.

“It’s nice being out here in the air and hearing birds sing. That's something I never heard when I was in the hospital," says Mike Bardsley, 14, pausing on his crutches to watch a soaring hawk. "I never thought I'd see the outside again." Mike, who spent 10 weeks in hospital isolation while undergoing a bone marrow transplant, has cancer--and so do the other 99 children at this week-long session of Camp Good Times. The disease and its debilitating chemotherapy and radiation treatments have ruled their lives and segregated them from their healthy peers for long stretches. "Cancer robs kids of their childhood," says camp founder Pepper Abrams, whose 10-year-old son, David, has leukemia. "This is a way of giving a little piece back to them." Sponsored by the Southern California Children's Cancer Services, Inc., Camp Good Times is funded by private donations to cover the $350-per-child cost. Parents pay only $25--if they can afford it. On a rented 40-acre ranch in the mountains above Malibu, the campers hike, fish, canoe, ride horses, sing songs around the campfire and, of course, have pillow fights--often for the first time in their lives. So that every child can participate fully, individual medical regimens are integrated into the camp routine, with drugs dispensed at mealtime and treatments administered during rest periods. "Children with cancer have very fragile egos. They think that they're different or that they did something wrong to get sick." observes Abrams. "We want camp to be all success. Every kid should be able to do everything." Says Dr. Cherryl Rubinstein. assistant camp director and psychologist at Children's Hospital of Los Angeles, "This is a chance to make friends and feel great about yourself. It doesn't matter here if you dive off a board with only one leg. Can you imagine doing that at a public pool?" The campers help one another rebuild their weakened self-esteem. One dimpled 12-year-old girl, embarrassed by the baldness under her bandanna, refused to go swimming. Her friend KJ, 11, used gentle but potent persuasion. "If you take your scarf off, I'll take my foot off," she coaxed. Until that point, KJ, who has bone cancer, had been so self-conscious about her prosthesis that she removed it only at night, when her cabin was totally dark. Their pact made, both girls left the trappings of their disease--and their inhibitions--on a poolside bench and jumped into the water together.

Cabinmates Jennifer and Samantha became inseparable.

Paco Mendoza, 12, cheers as his team wins a race.

A Scrapbook of Memories to Take Home

"My own daughter died of leukemia when she was twelve, before there was a Camp Good Times. My other two daughters would go away to camp, and she'd want to go with them so badly. When I heard about this place, I decided to get involved," says Barbara Sherman, one of 49 unpaid volunteer counselors. Her job is to help the youngsters assemble individual photo albums. Using donated cameras and film, the kids snap away as the week progresses. "When those bad days come, they'll have their scrapbooks to reflect back on," Sherman explains. From dawn to dusk, the pictures and memories pile up. On fishing trips with counselor James Stanley, campers usually hook a dozen sunfish before breakfast. One boy is surprised on an excursion to the beach. "Oh, the water tastes just like salt!" he marvels after his first gulp of the Pacific. A lunchtime visit by actor Richard Chamberlain, a camp supporter, brings out the paparazzo in each kid. But for the girls, the most serious pre-adolescent swooning is reserved for a few of the 61 boys and all 25 of the horses. KJ admits to equal crushes on Mayo Gamez, 10, and a mare named Duchess. (Both loves, alas, seem unrequited.) Another preteen idol is Danny Herrera, 12, greatly admired for his skills as a break dancer. To Danny, who has had Hodgkin's lymphoma for three years, the camp is a welcome change from his home in East Los Angeles. "My neighborhood is rowdy, and I have to be tough there," he explains. "Guys are always trying to get me to fight even though I tell them I have cancer. I wish camp was longer."

Weakened by a brain tumor, Cassaundra Chapman, 11, enjoys a canoe trip paddled by counselor Kim James, 31.

Counselor Dallas Stickney, 25, a special education teacher, leads his trusting group of blindfolded campers (right) on a "mystery walk" designed to test their sense of direction.

Samantha Brats, whose tumor required a leg amputation last winter, joins pals on a dash into the surf. "Crutches are easy to walk on, I'll tell you," she says.

David Moray, head boys' counselor, tosses a football with Polito Salazar, 13, who is paralyzed below the waist by a tumor on his spinal cord. Polito also excels at spiking volleyballs and pitching baseballs.

Vernon Duncan, 11, who lost his leg to a rare form of bone cancer, got an award as the camp's Champion Frog Catcher.


Without his crutches to support a leukemia-weakened hip, Mike Bardsley manages on his knees with Judi Kaapuni, 8. "I like the way you dance," she shyly whispered to him afterward.

Mark Willman, 15, who lost his hair during chemotherapy for nasal tumors, sprays his wig for the punk look.

Heidy Vaehevisser, 7, who has a rare muscle cancer, prefers to have her head painted. She is one of 11 campers invited from Holland, Mexico and Israel.

Pink Hair and Puppy Love to a New Wave Beat

"God, that was embarrassing! I had to dance with Craig," beams Samantha Brais, obviously delighted. The high point of the week has arrived: a fulldress Punk Dance for which bald heads, hair and T-shirts are splashed with washable paint. "I keep on forgetting how to dance." says Mayo Gamez, fleeing a trio of admirers. "I never got all this attention from girls before." KJ and Tamara Nordwig, 12, pause for breath outside the dining hall turned disco. "Mayo said he's going to send me a note tonight. Oooh. I'll do anything to make him mine," says Tamara. "Ours," sternly corrects KJ. "O.K., ours," sighs Tamara. The counselors, many of them medical and nursing students, have caught punk fever too. One of them twirls Polito Salazar's wheelchair to a frenetic Billy Idol record. A rare grin lights up Polito's face. As crutches are flung aside and wigs sail through the air, even the frailest girl, terminally ill with brain cancer, takes a spin on the floor, holding hands with a handsome counselor who towers above her. Dr. Rubinstein smiles at them. "I honestly believe some children stay alive just for camp," she says.

Camp founder Pepper Abrams hugs her son David, who suffered brain damage from his chemotherapy treatments.

After a Swim, a Hike to the Med Shed for Some TLC

The "Med Shed" and its staff of five, directed by Dr. Stuart Siegel and head nurse Barbara Britt of the hematology-oncology division of Children's Hospital, serve the youngsters' unique medical needs. "Thirty years ago, this camp would have had no purpose, because the chance of surviving leukemia was essentially zero," says Dr. Siegel. "Most would have died within a few months of diagnosis." Chemotherapy, in various forms, has changed that. After swallowing five to nine pills at each meal, the kids troop in for intramuscular shots, I.V. drips or a careful cleaning of their central catheters (tubes implanted in their chests through which injections are given). "They report voluntarily for treatment," says Nurse Britt. "Even at their young ages, they recognize that these things are very important."

Nurse Sherri Shepherd swabs antiseptic on Paco's chest catheter, through which he receives drugs for his liver tumor.

Like All Good Things, Camp Ends Too Soon

Counselor David Moray (left) wipes his eyes as Walt Kubelin consoles camper Dwayne Merriweather, 14, a Hodgkin's disease victim, on the final afternoon.

"I wish it lasted five more weeks," says Samantha on the final day. In the near future, if Pepper Abrams realizes her dream, the camp will be open year round-rather than two weeks each summe--to accommodate the hundreds of children with cancer in the Los Angeles area. There will be cabins for terminally ill children where they can share the last few weeks with their families in a nonhospital setting. Recently the state legislature approved a grant of 55 acres for a site in the Santa Monica Mountains, and the McDonald's Operators Association, which supports a number of cancer-care facilities, just pledged up to $350,000 a year to underwrite expenses--as it did this session. Now renamed Camp Ronald McDonald for Good Times, the project is seeking $4 million to build facilities for 120 children and staff. Already promised $1.2 million by donors, Abrams hopes to break ground in early 1985. Plans call for a medical clinic, a man-made lake, an Olympic-size pool and a special grove of trees. "We've decided we're going to plant a tree every time we lose a child. We won't let them just disappear," Abrams says. "Half of them grow up and survive--but half of them don't. We can walk around crying, or we can try to have an impact on their lives while they're alive."