Camp Goodtimes empowers kids to be kids

Children facing cancer diagnoses have fun, build connections.

Tanya Krohn, the director of Camp Goodtimes, said there isn’t much that sets their week-long flagship program apart from traditional summer camps.

Children of all ages spend long days making new friends, playing games, practicing archery, fishing in the sound and swimming in the Vashon Pool. On special nights, they eat spaghetti and meatballs with their hands for dinner.

But counselors and staff say that the camp, once affiliated with the American Cancer Society, gives children facing pediatric cancer — and their siblings — ages 7 to 17 something they may not come across often enough: a place they feel understood.

“There’s nothing completely extraordinary about what we do,” said Krohn, who goes by “Cooper” among the 120 campers she supervises in June and July each year. “But this is a place where a subset of kids in the world can come, and they find that they aren’t just kids with cancer, and they’re not defined by their cancer.”

The nonprofit Goodtimes Project just wrapped up its second session at Camp Burton last Saturday. After the American Cancer Society made the decision to end 30 years of funding for the camp in 2013, devoting more focus to research, supporters formed The Goodtimes Project, a nonprofit that raises money each year to open the camp for families at no cost.

Today, the organization is supported by more than 200 volunteers annually who commit their time and serve in every capacity at camp. Now funded by private and public donors, grants, benefit events and appeals to the community, the Goodtimes Project has grown to include a week-long Kayak Adventure Camp in the San Juan Islands for pediatric cancer survivors ages 18 to 25 — they will set off together on Aug. 4. A day-long mini-camp for children 5 to 7 to experience the fuller Camp Goodtimes draws many, and an overnight ski camp for older siblings of children who have been diagnosed is now in its second year. And last year, with a new program manager, The Goodtimes Project was able to sponsor additional opportunities for families to connect year-round.

Krohn said their goal is to provide some autonomy to young people currently battling cancer, to those in remission and to siblings of those affected by the disease, so they may gain a sense of independence otherwise unavailable to them in between treatments and the challenge of their circumstances.

“A lot of campers experiencing camp for the first time are used to the life that they have had, whether that’s going to hospital or doctor’s appointments and being closer to family,” said Krohn, adding that camp can be cathartic for parents who may struggle to give their children room to grow because of their diagnoses. For the campers themselves, she said, camp can be transformational.

“Whether they make it three steps up the climbing wall or they take the lead in a skit, it just gives them the confidence that they may have otherwise not had in the real world,” said Krohn.

This year, campers decorated superhero capes and wrote their own comic books, telling stories that illustrate a hero’s journey, much like their own. Program manager Becky Felak believes that some of the strides they have made are especially remarkable. She said it is empowering for campers to have the opportunity to be kids again, where they can pass milestones that come easier to their peers, such as riding a bike for the first time outside of a cancer ward.

“This is a safe space for kids that might have mobility challenges and balance issues or trouble engaging in games with their peers,” she said.

Felak added that she believes it is just as important for family members to feel a sense of belonging. Before her sister — a former camper — went into remission 13 years ago, Felak said she felt helpless. That began to take an emotional toll, but then her family discovered Camp Goodtimes.

“So often as a sibling, you kind of get thrust into a parenting role when you have a sick sibling,” she said. “Being able to relax and know your sibling is being cared for is really just a powerful experience.”

Felak said that everyone from Camp Goodtimes feels welcomed on the island. At the community pool recently, she said open swim time was curtailed in order to accommodate a large number of campers who wanted to take a dip. The Vashon Sportsmen’s Club has offered the use of its fishing pond since the organization became independent in 2014. Felak said she was sure the fish were extra hungry when campers tossed their lines in, making for a day of catches for all. To celebrate the end of camp, the Tacoma Rotary Club and Bellevue Rotary Club help put on a funfair complete with a slip-n-slide, bouncy house, spin art, dunk tank, obstacle course, face painting and plenty of snow cones and cotton candy. Afterward, camp erupts with a whip cream fight, and when it’s over, members of Vashon Island Fire & Rescue hose everyone down.

Staff and volunteers always go to The Rock on Vashon Island for pizza after all of the campers have left. Felak said that despite their massive appetites, the restaurant always keeps up with their order.

“When our staff goes into town, and they go into Thriftway, and they’re wearing crazy camp clothes, we just feel so appreciated by the community,” she said.

At age 13, Bailey Taylor was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, but even having beaten the disease, she has returned to camp every year since. Today she is a counselor and said that she still cherishes the relationships she built with other survivors years ago.

“It’s interesting to see other kids going through what you went through when you were young, and to impart some of the wisdom you have learned as you were growing older,” she said.

Taylor added that the hardest part of the job is getting the campers into bed at a decent hour.

“Everyone is so excited,” she said.

This version of the article corrects the misspelling of Tanya Krohn’s name.