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Goodtimes supporters rally to keep camp running

When Veronica Jannetty went to summer camp at age 13, she had been diagnosed with leukeumia the year before. The camp — for kids affected by cancer — gave her the chance to both connect with others facing the same struggle and simply be a teenager at summer camp.

Jannetty, an islander, attended Camp Goodtimes, which is held for two weeks each summer at Camp Burton for cancer patients, survivors and their siblings ages 7 to 17. The camp also offers a week of  kayak camping in the San Juan Islands for cancer survivors age 17 to 25. For 30 years, the American Cancer Society (ACS) supported the camp and several others like it around the country. But last spring the ACS announced it would no longer fund the camps, focusing its resources instead on research.

Now a new nonprofit organization, The Goodtimes Project, has taken root and is working to raise half a million dollars so that the popular camp can continue, both this summer and for years into the future.

It is an effort Jannetty, who attended camp for five years and will volunteer as a staff member for the second time this summer, hopes many will support.

“It takes a lot more than research and chemotherapy to cure cancer,” she said.

So far, the group has raised $150,000, according to Carol Mastenbrook, the executive director of The Goodtimes Project. Its goal for this year is $500,000, she said, though $400,000 will ensure the camp will run this summer, and she is optimistic the group will reach its goal through donations, proceeds from an upcoming wine auction and transitional funds from the ACS.

“We believe we will have the necessary funding,” she said.

Still, there is considerable work to be done, according to Gus Peterson, the camp’s program director. Both he and Mastenbrook say that with the camp’s new autonomy, possibilities have opened up, including for new relationships and activities on Vashon.

“We’re very interested in working with the local community,” Mastenbrook said. “We want to be part of the larger, broader family there.”

As for what that might mean, Peterson said most anything might be possible.

“The sky is the limit for islanders to plug in,” he said.

Doug and Erin Kieper, the owners of Vashon Watersports, have already plugged in.

Doug himself is a cancer survivor, diagnosed when he was just 24, and an avid outdoorsman. When he completed treatment, he returned to the outdoors, he said.

“I left the hospital and climbed a 13,000-foot peak in Colorado with radiation burns, surgical scars and a partially paralyzed left hand. It was a celebration of life and living that impacted me deeply,” he said.

Kieper learned about Camp Goodtimes shortly after taking over the business at Jensen Point from the Vashon Park District. When he learned of the camp’s mission, Kieper said he volunteered to help the group in any way he could.

“It was one of those surreal moments in life when you feel you have been led to something,” he said.

Vashon Watersports is now loaning kayaks to the camp, instead of renting them, and the Kiepers have donated to the The Goodtimes Project and offered their assistance however it might be useful, from hosting fundraising events to engaging in brainstorming sessions.

He noted that he thinks the island provides an ideal setting for the camp and its mission.

“The kayak center and Vashon Island, they’re kind of like adventure travel with training wheels,” he said.

Each week, about 120 children and teens attend the camp, Peterson said, with about half of the campers affected by cancer directly and five to 10 campers in the midst of treatment. The other half the campers are siblings, who sometimes show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder from the upheaval pediatric cancer causes in a family, Peterson said.

Many activities are traditional summer camp fun, he said, archery, arts and crafts, swimming and beachcombing. There are larger activities as well, including a trip on an Argosy cruise and getting sprayed by a Seattle fire boat. Vashon Island Fire & Rescue comes out on the camp’s carnival day and takes part in the festivities with a  water fight and other activities.

The group also intentionally “dives into and out of” the cancer story, Peterson said. They open the week with the lighting of a metal heart in the trees that was inspired by a man who helped found the camp and who had erected an enormous heart on his Seattle home so that pediatric cancer patients at Children’s Hospital might see it from a window and feel less alone.

From the somberness of that ceremony, Peterson said, balloons go up, celebration ensues and community begins to form.

Kathleen Hendrickson, the executive director of Camp Burton, said she and her staff are proud to host the camp, which has met there each summer since 1989.

“It’s a tremendous program,” she said. “It’s inspiring to see how they face medical challenges and come here and be kids. We have seen so many happy campers and the love they have for each other.”

It is a picture that apparently keeps many volunteers coming back; last year, Peterson said, 80 percent of the volunteers from the year before returned. But there is room for more hands, he said, with a range of possibilities open for people, from helping with office needs to assisting with logistics — and not all volunteer jobs need to happen during the weeks of camp, he noted. And if people have a particular skill or talent they would like to share with kids, he would like to hear from them.

Kieper, who will also serve as a camp volunteer this year with his wife, hopes islanders will step up and lend assistance to the camp as it both stabilizes and creates a new path for itself.

“I see it as a big opportunity for their organization and for us as a community to get involved in something that makes a big difference in people’s lives,” he said.

Camp Goodtimes will meet at Camp Burton the weeks of June 22 to 28 and July 20 to 26. For more information about the camp and the fundraiser, see www.thegoodtimesproject.org or contact Gus Petersen at gus@thegoodtimesproject.org.

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