Faces of Courage Cancer Survivors Camp 2013

I arrived at Faces of Courage camp late for registration… 2 reasons:  Number one was a torrential downpour on I-75 that had things moving more like a parking lot than an expressway, and number two – well number two is that I’m always late.

I went into registration and a “get to know you” party was going on.  The volunteers gave me my schedule of events, my cabin number (4) and a name tag.  By the time I stepped back outside the downpour had turned into a sprinkle – someone directed me to cabin 4, and told me there were wagons to bring in my stuff.

I went to the cabin and managed to get myself a lower bunk. Yay! I could see that while I had been running late, I had arrived only 20 minutes late for registration – there were a lot of bunks in the cabin already taken and that meant that people had arrived way earlier than the scheduled registration time. At any rate I still managed to get a lower bunk and I was very happy.  When I stepped back outside to go get my things the rain had all but stopped.  I located a cart and set out to unload, make my bed as the others had already done, and get over to dinner.

The paperwork said the beds were cots, but this wasn’t the case. These were metal framed bunk beds, 10 to a cabin and the mattresses were at least 5 inches thick. They were very comfy. Also the cabins had air conditioning.

Dinner was delicious, as was all the food at camp that weekend. We had Greek chicken with rice the first night; fajitas for lunch on Saturday, and ribs & fried chicken Saturday night. Breakfast was pancakes, French toast, & eggs. The kitchen and most everything else at camp was staffed by volunteers. Some were high school kids, other survivors, and the massage therapists who gave their time on probably their busiest day of the week.

Saturday was bright and sunny. A gentle breeze blew off the lake and I was able to really see my surroundings.  The camp consisted of 6 cabins, an infirmary, library, chapel, the dining hall, the recreation hall and another big hall by the lake all painted a bight cheerful yellow. There were huge old oaks dripping with Spanish moss and a lovely screened in gazebo.

I had made two new friends and we hung out together the entire time. We took advantage of all that was offered – massages, haircuts, a hypnotist; we had tarot card readings, and multiple ice cream & desert parties. The only thing we missed out on was the t-shirt tie-dying. Other activities included kayaking & canoeing, archery, salt scrub making, yoga, portraits, a Mary Kay demonstration, and line dancing classes.  There was also a lymphedema talk, and an ask the Dr Q & A.

While my new friends took naps I ventured out near the lake and sat in one of the many wooden bench swings under the trees. I took photos of everything, I watched the birds on the lake, I watched the home owners on the opposite bank cutting their lawns… and I just relaxed. I just let my mind still and thought about absolutely nothing.

There were approximately 80 campers (all female) and all either past survivors or currently patients. Of the total population I would say the great majority had breast cancer, and of those perhaps 5% of us were still in active treatment.  There was one who had just had a mastectomy and still had her drain in.  There were countless others I saw who had their surgeries and either opted out of reconstruction or were waiting to do so.

There was no pretense here. No one was trying to impress anyone or cover up what they were dealing with. These were warriors.  Maybe not doing battle with a weapon, but fighting a war nonetheless. No one wore their wigs, and there were no hats or scarves either. It was freeing in every sense of the word. We could be ourselves here with our sisters, hiding nothing, being pampered and sharing our stories.

Saturday night we had a cowboy themed costume party and dance – campers were encouraged to wear their best cowboy outfits and be judged. I haven’t laughed that hard in ages. They had a photo booth set up and we all took goofy photos with hats & mustaches.

On Sunday morning we went to the recreation hall and another volunteer passed out African drums and instructed us all how to play tribal rhythms. Everyone around me was smiling, & some were dancing but all too soon it was over and she had to go. We took cabin photos, a big group photo and then it was time for the final activity before it was time to leave… the butterfly release.

Butterflies are a symbol of recovery, & symbolic in that they were also a symbol of hope.  We were all handed a small purple package

 with a live butterfly inside – at the given moment everyone opened their packages & expected their butterfly to fly away… except that they really didn’t.  The butterflies are shipped frozen and then thawed out before their release. It doesn’t hurt them and ensures they arrive alive.  Our butterflies were apparently still a little cold because they mostly ended up on the ground.  Mine landed on my leg so I picked it up and put it on a leaf.  When all the butterflies were out of harms way everyone said their goodbyes and headed towards the parking lot and home.

I had a great time at the Faces of Courage camp. The staff and volunteers were amazing and I would recommend it to anyone. I’m really glad it stopped raining, and I cannot wait until next year!!

by Norma Pitzer-Kelly

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