By Alyssa, Junior Volunteer —
I originally started with Camp Rainbow Gold as a camper in Teen Oncology Camp, the summer after my junior year of high school. Back then, I was nervous and shy about pretty much everything, so spending a week at a camp with cold showers where I didn’t know a soul felt a bit intimidating. I was apprehensive and a little scared, but in typical camp spirit, I was greeted with lots of love, lots of color, and Jason Hosick in a fairy costume with a rainbow wig. My sole year as a camper was wonderful and I made life-long friends and memories, but my experience as a volunteer has changed me exponentially.
When it gets brought up in conversation that I volunteer for Camp Rainbow Gold, I get a lot of, “Wow, isn’t it really heavy and depressing?” or “How do you stand to be around children in such tough situations?” The truth is, at heart, they are still just normal kids. I know from experience that just because you were sick for a while doesn’t mean you don’t want to laugh, play, climb, dance and compete with your friends. It just sometimes has to be done in a different way. In my opinion, the aim of camp is to provide a place where kids, whose lives are anything but typical, feel normal for a week. They throw water balloons, have ‘tater tot casserole and get lots of mosquito bites. What a relief to let go of the burdening thoughts of chemo, hair loss and death for a week and just play with your friends. Although the camp is designed to provide a haven for the campers, I’ve found that volunteers get just as much (or more) from being at camp.
One aspect of Camp Rainbow Gold I cherish is bonding with the kids in your cabin and seeing them bond with each other. Although it’s frowned on to prod the kids into talking about sensitive subjects, in my experience, they bring it up on their own when they feel it’s a good time. One strong memory I have of this is from my last year of volunteering. I was sitting with a group of girls in the Art Shack (a magical place, with crafts galore) and the conversation turned to each of their sibling’s story of how they were diagnosed. They spoke freely about the hardships and connected over their shared knowledge of the ins and outs of cancer treatment. It’s humbling to see that you can try your hardest to artificially create the bonding moments by using icebreakers and other games, but the true connections won’t come until you sit back, and they open up to each other. It was such a rewarding experience getting to know each individual person for who they are: funny, shy, silly, sassy, and not just the sibling of someone who’s struggled with cancer.
Another rewarding feature of volunteering at camp is meeting and bonding with co-counselors. As with anything in life, there will always be people who don’t think the same way as you, but a solid 90% of the time, you’ll make close friends with the people you work with. For the two years I’ve volunteered, I’ve been a junior counselor (basically a counselor-in-training). I was paired up with the best counselors I could’ve asked for. They were kind, patient, and they made me feel heard and a part of the group. Since junior counselors don’t have the full set of responsibilities as a counselor, it can be easy to give them the grunt work of camp. But, along with some character-building elbow grease, I was never left out of important conversations, and they made a point to let me take the lead on activities for practice. It was an invaluable experience being paired with such amazing women, and selfishly I always hope to be paired up with them for coming camps.
An unexpected facet of being a volunteer is the personal healing you get just by being a part of camp. As a newcomer, one probably hears a lot of things about the pinecone ceremony: it’s described as a heavy, somber night of tears and tissues. For someone who hasn’t attended one, this can be intimidating and unknown. I don’t know how to comfort these kids; I have no idea what they’ve gone through. While this is true, it’s a completely different experience. The gist of the night is that each child gets a pinecone and tucks their wishes into the bristles, and at the ceremony they toss them into the fire, letting the ashes float up to angels, heaven or wherever they’d like them to go. Although there are tears, it’s more of a release than a heavy experience. For my first ceremony, I was a bit anxious because I didn’t think I would get emotional. Being a cancer survivor myself, it was (and still is) a beautiful experience. No one is pressured to show untrue emotion, and all are free to do what feels right, whether it be sitting alone, or being next to friends. Unexpectedly, I had a lot of emotion in the moment, but then again, a lot of others did too. My point being that even though the words describing the Pinecone Ceremony can be daunting, the true experience is not something to fear. Just giving yourself the freedom to be present in the moment and not forcing or bottling emotions is more than enough.
I cannot stress enough how much of a rewarding experience it is to be a part of Camp Rainbow Gold in any way possible. The friendships are strong, the games are fun, and I don’t exaggerate when I say it fills your life with a rainbow of color that lasts throughout the year. Over the 11 months and 3 weeks one isn’t at camp, we get busy with jobs, kids, and money, but coming back to camp fills up a tank you didn’t realize was empty and provides you with an unmatched joy and hope.