WOODLAND PARK • Wearing neon-hued sunglasses, bandannas, baseball caps, leis and a tutu, youngsters at Camp Wapiyapi marched from all directions Wednesday morning to a centralized dirt quad.
With help from volunteer companions, who never leave their side, they then donned white T-shirts, slathered on sunscreen and huddled up for a few team chants in preparation for the “color games.”
The object: Run around and throw colored powder at each other. Then, have a water-gun fight to wash off the mess.
Whoops, screams and tangible energy rise from the ground to the sky at the camp in the Pike National Forest northwest of Colorado Springs.
This could be any summer camp in any state.
But Camp Wapiyapi is for Colorado pediatric cancer patients ages 6-17, who are in treatment, remission or relapse. Siblings also can apply to attend the camp, which, through donations, is free to families.
The goal is what the word Wapiyapi means in Lakota Sioux: health and healing.
Leaders of the nonprofit organization, which was founded in 1998 by medical students at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, have added another word to the mission — “hope.”
For Camp Wapiyapi isn’t a place to focus on kids with cancer. It’s a place where kids can forget they have cancer.
“These are young people who have had to grow up too quickly,” said CEO Darla Dakin. “Camp Wapiyapi is freedom for our children to just be kids again.”
Participants hang out with peers who understand what they’re going through, she said, and have a chance to “get away from a cancer diagnosis, with lots of fun and laughter.”
The experience in itself provides encouragement to what can be a bleak situation, Dakin said.
This is 11-year-old Ashley’s second year at Camp Wapiyapi, which until last year was held in Estes Park.
From the time Ashley, who lives in Longmont, and other campers arrive at the beginning of the week, they are made to feel special and welcome.
Chalk drawings of flowers, the sun, rainbows, and positive affirmations “Best Week of The Year,” “You Can Do It” and “Keep It Up” line the sidewalks leading to the lodges where children stay.
Campers walk through a “love tunnel” adults form with their hands. Volunteers cheer the children on as they make their way to rooms decorated with balloons, streamers and signs.
“Everyone here is awesome and so nice,” Ashley said. “We’re doing different stuff all day. We get to play whatever we want.”
The activities help her not think about being sick. She had surgery to remove a tumor on her adrenal gland, which made her voice deeper and her body grow faster than usual. She’s feeling better now, and she adds with a chuckle, there are children her age who finally are taller than she is.
Complete with rope courses, a craft shack, mountain biking, a zip line, archery, GaGa ball, a photo hike, singing around the campfire and other activities, Camp Wapiyapi is much like other summer camps.
It differs in that children line up for medications or injections four times a day, and volunteer physicians and nurses are onsite 24/7. Some children have colostomy bags or feeding tubes or insulin pumps.
“Most of the kids know their meds better than anybody,” said Dr. Kristen Hertzler, an emergency medicine physician in the Centura Health system who works at nine facilities in Denver. “It’s great getting face time with them and seeing them return to being a kid.”
Tony Fendick, a 34-year-old land surveyor from Loveland, remembers what it’s like to have cancer at a young age.
He was diagnosed with leukemia at 9 and had treatment until he was 11. He attended a similar camp in upstate New York.
“It was very meaningful to go to a camp during the summer where you weren’t getting picked on and you kind of felt like an average kid,” he said.
Being bald from chemo, pudgy from medication and missing class for treatment in the third grade wasn’t easy then, Fendick said, and it’s not easy now for children.
“It’s hard to fit in,” he said.
That’s why he’s volunteering as the Orange Team leader at Camp Wapiyapi.
“As weird as it sounds, it was a good thing that happened,” Fendick said of his cancer. “Not everyone gets childhood cancer. It’s something special. And I have a pretty good life now.”
There are other camps around the country that cater to pediatric cancer patients. What makes Camp Wapiyapi different, Dakin said, is it’s family-centric.
The importance of including siblings in the stay helps develop stronger family bonds, provides support for siblings who are often overlooked and gives parents needed rest, she said.
The camp is also more inclusive than others in accepting a wide age range, from 6 to 17, and encompassing special-needs kids, said Rhonda Sheya, director of marketing and development.
“The main thing here is no one’s different; they’re all the same,” Sheya said.
“You’re who you are on the inside here.
Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.