Camping with cancer

Want an attitude adjustment? Meet the kids at Camp Okizu

If you’re looking for an attitude adjustment, spend a day at a camp for kids with cancer. It’ll rearrange your mental furniture for you.

Last week I visited Camp Okizu, which is off Bald Rock Road in Berry Creek, about 45 miles from Chico. I went there to visit my wife, Denise, who used her vacation time to be a volunteer camp nurse for the week. Nearly all the adults at the camp, from doctors to counselors, are volunteers.

At first Okizu seemed like a normal summer camp, filled with excited children running around under pine trees and making a big noise. There’s a pond for swimming and boating, another for fishing, and fun daily activities like playing capture the flag and doing crafts.

Then I noticed that some of the children looked tired and were moving slowly. Others limped, some on prosthetic legs.

Not all of the children had active cancers. Some were in remission. Any child who has or has had the disease is eligible to attend the camp, at no cost. It’s an opportunity for them to be among kids who don’t think they’re strange and can give them support. As I heard several of them say, nobody understands what it’s like to be a kid with cancer better than another kid with cancer.

On Saturday, the last full day of camp, everybody convened in the campfire area for what is called “Inspiration.” It’s an opportunity for the campers to take turns talking to the community about what’s going on in their lives and what camp has meant to them.

One by one they stepped forward, some fearlessly, others timidly, and bared their souls in ways I had never heard children do. These kids go through something no child should have to endure, but they come out of it better people, wise and compassionate beyond their years.

One little girl, about 10 years old, spoke of how, just two days before coming to camp, she’d learned that her best camp friend had died. She was almost too sad to come, she said, tears streaming down her face, but she was glad she did “because I don’t usually get to share my feelings. Thanks, Camp Okizu.”

The camp was founded 29 years ago by John Bell, a retired businessman, and Dr. Michael Amylon, an emeritus professor of pediatrics at Stanford and director of Bone Marrow Transplant Services at Lucille Salter Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford. Both men devote their summers and much of the rest of the year to the camp, where Bell is known as “The Bassmaster” for his prowess on the fishing pond, and Amylon is simply Dr. Mike.

In these tough economic times, Okizu is feeling the pinch. If you’d like to help out, go to Be sure to click on “About” and watch an excellent video about the camp produced by ABC Channel 7 in San Jose.

And thanks, Camp Okizu, for helping me get my priorities straight.