Dave Smith, guitar in hand, grins as he launches into the chorus of his original musical number "No Mo Chemo." At a table to his side, Coleen McGowan and her mother Rose sing along to lyrics 25 years in the making. Smith's concert in the Northern Virginia 4H Center's Dining Hall is part of the twenty-fifth reunion weekend for Special Love, a Winchester VA based charity that provides services and support to children with cancer and their families.
A glimpse through twenty-five years of Special Love scrapbooks reveals a storied past leading up to the organization's silver anniversary. From its humble beginnings as the brain-child of Tom and Sheila Baker, Special Love has grown into one of the most successful and effective children's cancer charities in the nation. Today, drawing heavily upon the medical expertise of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda Maryland as well as a staff of volunteers, survivors, and parents, Special Love provides a week long camp for childhood cancer patients, an additional week long camp for patent's siblings, and a host of weekends, outings, and events for survivors, family, and friends.
Smith laughs as he finishes another original song, quipping that, in twenty-five more years, when Special Love reconvenes to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary it will also celebrate the twenty-fourth anniversary of the eradication of childhood cancer. The audience laughs. It is a dear but distant hope for the patients and families that fill the hall. Even so, idealistic as it is, the sentiment is not lost upon them. Much has changed since Special Love first opened its "Camp Fantastic" in 1982. Childhood cancer survival rates have skyrocketed as surgical, radiological and chemical therapies have grown more sophisticated. The terrible side-effects of treatment - the baldness, weakness, and pallor traditionally associated with chemotherapy - have been significantly diminished by an ever increasing understanding of pharmacology and oncology. Many of the children of Camp Fantastic 2007 bare little resemblance to their predecessors of twenty-five years past, their full heads of hair and less sickly appearance belying a childhood fraught with the anxiety and uncertainty of a potentially terminal diagnosis.
To them, and to their families, Special Love is an oasis of support and reprieve. Surrounded by peers suffering from the same ailments, campers are free to be children rather than patients. Surrounded by laughter and playful screams, parents compare notes on treatment side effects and seek a mutual understanding in a camaraderie of sleepless nights and panicked phone calls. Amidst all of this, a family of sorts has been born to which survivors, some decades out of treatment, return as prodigal children. Indeed, scattered amidst the hundreds in attendance are some of those very first campers. Older now and with children of their own, their presence imbues these proceedings with a palpable sense of cautious optimism. In their faces, and in the faces of their young families, the hope of survival is affirmed.
And survival is what Special Love and other children's cancer charities is in the business of cultivating. The impact of cancer upon a family and upon a child is staggering, not just physically but psychologically as well. Those affected suffer a profound sense of "otherness," seemingly frozen in a day to day struggle as the rest of the world passes them by. Addressing this mental consequence of childhood cancer is among Special Love's most important roles. As doctors, nurses, and lab technicians tend to the delicate balance of drugs and treatments that ensure a child's physical well-being, the volunteers and staff of Special Love tend to emotional well-being as jesters, confidants, and caregivers.
There is a unique culture here - exuberant in the defiance of mortality. Children, parents, and staff are all acutely aware of the weight and import of the health issues at hand, yet true to Camp Fantastic form, the reaction is not one of trepidation but rather a celebration of life and childhood. It is an enthusiasm and optimism that is both palpable and contagious. In a few weeks, bus loads of children from MCV, Kings Daughters, NIH, and UVA health centers will arrive on this 4H Center Campus for the 25th Camp Fantastic. If previous years serve as a guide, by week's end the local kids of Front Royal Virginia will spend the rest of their summer hopping towards the pool while each holding one leg behind their back. There is a profound measure of hope in that sight. To see these children run, laugh, and play in the warm summer sun despite all that has and will happen to them and further to see them first accepted, and then strangely emulated by the camp's local community is a powerful reminder that childhood, at least, is universal.