Camp Okizu provides a haven for kids and families dealing with cancer
“Do you want to hear something cool?” asks 14-year-old Janessa Sales.
She cups a hand over one of her ears, and there is a faint screeching that sounds like someone is listening to opera in the other room. It’s actually the feedback from her hearing aids. She giggles, showing silver braces on her teeth.
Janessa sits comfortably in the air-conditioned infirmary at Camp Okizu, located in Berry Creek. She was first diagnosed with cancer when she was 10 and relapsed shortly before her 12th birthday.
She is a petite, spunky girl with an upbeat attitude, which has earned her the nickname “the jokester” at Camp Okizu. Janessa always tries to smile, even on her worst days. She lost all of her hair when she first went through chemotherapy, and would sometimes joke that she was having “a bald moment” instead of “a blonde moment” whenever she forgot something. Now Janessa has a full head of feather-soft hair under a huge baseball cap.
Camp Okizu isn’t an ordinary summer camp. Out of the 120 children laughing and dancing in the lodge, a quarter of them won’t live to adulthood.
But they aren’t thinking about that right now. For a week out of the year, they forget their illness as they play tag, capture the flag, swim and climb trees like healthy children.
Every year patients from as far away as Salinas and the Oregon border come to the pediatric oncology camp to make sure they don’t miss out on normal childhood activities. It’s a place where cancer patients and their families don’t have to endure moist-eyed pity from neighbors. And it’s a place where no one looks twice at the boy with the prosthetic leg or the girl with no hair.
Camp Okizu was founded in 1982 by John Bell and Dr. Michael Amylon on property donated by the Camp Fire Girls of Nevada City. They had 28 kids that first year. In 2000, Camp Okizu moved to a bigger location in Berry Creek above Lake Oroville and now receives around 800 visitors a year. Bell and Amylon (who is director of bone marrow transplant services for the Lucile Salter Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford University) started the entire camp from scratch.
The camp is equipped with an infirmary, a boat house, an archery site, four lakes the kids can fish, trails, a ropes obstacle course and even a wheelchair obstacle course.
The wheelchair course takes a lot of technical skill. Kids wheel through the trees on suspended platforms, go up and down stairs and ride off a platform so that for a moment they are flying in mid-air before their harness catches them.
Okizu offers three week-long oncology camps each summer, in addition to camps for for family members, siblings and one for patients and siblings ages 18 to 25. Camp Okizu is free, and relies heavily on donations and volunteers. Many pediatric nurses and doctors volunteer so they can continue their patients’ treatments.
Treatment in pediatric oncology has improved over the years. Just 25 years ago, Bell says, there was only a 50 percent survival rate, but better medicine has increased survival to 75 percent. He says it’s a good thing for the kids to see their doctors outside of a hospital environment so they won’t always associate doctors as simply the people on the other end of a sharp object.
Bell is a slender man with gray hair and a white beard who is quite modest about his role in starting the camp. He’s reached celebrity stature with some of the former campers. Most of the children know him only as “the bass master,” because he teaches them how to fish.
Bell, who was hospice caregiver in the ‘70s, got the idea for Camp Okizu after watching a news program about an oncology camp in New York. He discovered that there were six hospitals that specialized in pediatric oncology in Northern California and all of them networked with each other. The timing was right to start a camp.
“Everyone was thinking the same thing at the same time,” Bell said.
For the hundreds of kids who visit the camp every summer, Okizu is a welcome change of scenery from brightly lit, sterile hospital rooms. The 500-acre camp looks more like a resort at Lake Tahoe than a summer camp, and is surrounded by national-forest land.
Even on the drive up, the air smells cleaner as you rise above the smog that sits on the Sacramento Valley like scum on the sides of a soap dish. The lodge emerges from the woods like a castle made of pine and glass.
On this particular afternoon, Baseball Lunch is well underway. Volunteers run between the tables wearing batting helmets and tossing food to the outstretched hands, just like at the ballpark. A boy catches an apple in his baseball mitt.
There is music playing, and some of the younger kids start break-dancing between the tables to MC Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This.” One of the boys does a handstand. Soon there’s a conga line, and in no time everyone is dancing.
Janessa continues braiding a friendship bracelet in the infirmary. She jumps from her chair and rushes into the lodge so she can get a good seat for Baseball Lunch.
“They have the best food here, let me tell ya,” Janessa says.
On today’s menu are hot dogs, chips, apples, fruit roll-ups and ice-cream bars. It may not be five-star cuisine, but at least it’s not hospital food.