Playing Through

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A camper plays Capture the Flag on the athletic fields at Horizon Day Camp in Brooklandville. (David Stuck photo)

On a recent blistering summer afternoon, a drive to the campus of Maryvale Preparatory School in lush, green Brooklandville seemed the perfect escape.

Down the school’s winding driveway and past manicured athletic fields, attendees of Horizon Day Camp could follow their ears to Erinn McCarthy Humanities Hall, where staff, counselors and campers were getting pumped up for the day to the booming music and chants of the Morning Roundup.

Adjacent to the hall, on the lawn in front of the school’s signature 1916 Wickcliffe Castle, colorful inflatable bounce houses waited to be brought to life for the afternoon carnival. Later that evening there would be Glee Night for parents to spend relaxing, quality time with their children.

This was the last week of the summer-long Horizon Day Camp, where more than 150 youngsters, from 3 to 18, came to play and create and maybe forget for a little while that they, or a beloved sibling, has cancer.

The camp, which serves Maryland and Washington, D.C., was founded in 2016. It is part of Sunrise Association of Oceanside, New York, which operates eight camps in the U.S. and Israel.

Sunrise Association founder Arnie Preminger, inspired by Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang Camp that serves children with life-threatening illness, started Sunrise Day Camp on Long Island in 2006.

“We launched a presence in Baltimore in the fall of 2015 and had our first full year in 2016,” said Mark McElrath, Horizon Day Camp executive director. “In Maryland, we’re affiliated with the four big pediatric oncology hospitals in this region, which are Sinai Hospital, Johns Hopkins, University of Maryland and Children’s National Hospital in D.C.”

The day camp, which runs seven and a half weeks at Maryvale, is free and offers rolling enrollments, so children in treatment and their siblings, from toddlers to teens, can drop in any time for any length of time. Transportation is provided. And although founded in the Jewish day camp model, Horizon is a secular camp, welcoming any child with cancer and their siblings to attend before, during and after their treatments are over.

Campers and counselors gather for the Morning Roundup. (Susan C. Ingram photo)

“So, a child can come the last day, the last afternoon. Our doors are always open to them. Some kids come every single day, some kids come when they can,” McElrath said. “In some cases, children may have hospital treatments early in the week that knocks them out for a few days, but then they’re back with us later in the week. It’s really a plug-and-play system. On a daily basis, we might have 70 to 80 children here.”

Doctors and hospital staff often refer children to the camp, but Horizon runs year-round programs in the hospitals, called Horizon on Wheels, offering fun activities to engage children and their families, who may then decide to attend camp as well.

The idea of including siblings was an important one, said Horizon Vice President of Marketing Judy Fishkind.

“They’re the forgotten child. They’re the ones that when Mom and Dad are at the hospital they are being shuffled around. They can’t have friends over, because of their brother’s or sister’s compromised immune system,” Fishkind said. “The siblings are so protective of the primary child that we found that they don’t want to be apart from them. But within a day they realize their sibling’s OK, they’re OK, and they’re in a very safe, comfortable place.”

McElrath agreed.

“We truly wouldn’t be serving the family as robustly as we could if we said, ‘You can only bring your sick child, you have to find other arrangements for the rest of your children,’” he said. “At Horizon and at all of our camps, it’s really a community.”

That community spirit was evident during the boisterous Morning Roundup, which included father and counselor Derrick Hiatt, a history teacher at Kenwood High School who began working as a counselor after his son Cyrus, 8, in treatment since 2015 for leukemia, began attending the camp along with his little sister Eve.

Father and counselor Derrick Hiatt enjoys the camp with his daughter Eve and son Cyrus. (David Stuck photo)

“Obviously, when you first get that news, it can be a bit devastating,” he said. “Especially with leukemia, when they tell you that the treatment is for such a long period of time. It’s like three years of chemo. Thoughts race through your mind: ‘Is he going to be in bed for three years? Is he going to be nauseous for three years?’ So, there’s a lot of fear there.

“When he was admitted for 10 days to stay at the hospital, those were rough times, those were trying times. We had issues with him not wanting to take medication. I saw my boy, who up until then had been happy and healthy, he just sank into this depression. He didn’t want to talk to anybody, he wouldn’t laugh anymore. He was really low.”

But the camp has helped Cyrus, Eve and their parents deal with the stresses of living with cancer. And although Hiatt said it can be tempting to want to protect the kids, “wrap them in a bubble,” the doctors advise that having fun can be good medicine.

“There’s the medical issue with cancer, right, but also, there’s the spiritual part,” Hiatt said. “The happiness of a child — to let them be a kid. And that’s so important, that you provide opportunities like this where they can forget about it for a while.

“For both my children, and Cyrus especially, they’ve had a great time, they’ve made friends who they want to get together with outside of camp. They look forward to it every single day and it’s just been a real blessing to us as a family. It’s someplace they can go and they can have their spirits lifted for a while and just have a blast.”

Cyrus and Eve have come to the camp pretty much every day this summer, where Cyrus’ favorite activities are “going to the pool and having athletics and basketball,” Cyrus said. He has made tons of friends and is especially close with one, “because his brother has cancer just like me,” Cyrus said, “and he knows what I’m going through.”

And although he shook his head “No,” when asked if the camp helps him forget his cancer, he was clear about whether it’s a good thing to have fun every day.

“Yes,” he said, with conviction.

Little sister Eve, who is a bit shy, just turned 6 and loves doing arts and crafts and making jewelry.

Counselor Zev Gruner, 25, of Pikesville, has been working at the camp since it started in 2016, when he did an internship with Towson University’s Brightwood College.

Counselor Zev Gruner, left, with camper. (David Stuck photo)

“I was supposed to only be here for one year and I fell in love with the camp and I love the kids,” said Gruner. “I have a family member who is a cancer survivor, so I knew what it meant to go through all that as far as family members go. And I thought that maybe it was a chance for me to make a difference in another kid’s life and to give back.”

Gruner was hanging out with campers in the arts and crafts room, where Aidan, 12, and Alison, 11, were working at a table scattered with glitter, wooden picture frames and art supplies.

“I’m here because my mom wanted me to come and I wanted to come. To make new friends. I’ve made a lot of friends,” said Alison, who has brain cancer and has been in treatment for three years. “My favorite things are swimming in the pool, the carnival also.”

Aidan began attending Horizon last year after having been diagnosed with post-transplant lymphoproliferative disorder.

“It’s very fancy words for not a very confusing thing,” he said and laughed. “It’s really nice to be here with people that can relate to me. And it’s really cool for my brother, too. He’s made a lot of friends here.”

Aidan loves going to the pool and is “definitely” coming back next year.

Ava, 11, said she loves arts and crafts, especially “making slime.” She said she has made friends who have helped her get through a stressful time.

When asked what her favorite activity was, Tijaye, a boisterous 9-year-old, giggled and looked down at her sparkly workspace.

“Arts, as you can see!” she said. “And glitter! And my friends that are here. I made a lot of friends here.”

Tijaye, whose brother is currently hospitalized for cancer treatment, said it was important to help celebrate people who have cancer. And she said the camp has brought them closer.

Campers and counselors on the Maryvale athletic fields at Horizon Day Camp. (David Stuck photo)

“My brother, he has been in the hospital for some time. But now I get to see him more often because he’s getting a lot more better ever since I came to camp,” she said, adding she will be back next year.

Outside, McElrath and other staff watched from the sidelines of the athletic fields as campers and siblings engaged in an energetic game of Capture the Flag.

“For the most part, you can’t tell who the sick children are and who the siblings are. That’s the culture that we have here,” he said. “Everything’s focused on the joy part of it, the fun part of it. And if you think about it, every child on that field has gone through some type of crisis in their family, but yet, that’s removed right now. They’re forgetting about all that and they’re doing all the things any child deserves to do and should do as a child. Having fun, playing games, learning. I get a similar joy … seeing them have joy.”

“And another extension of that — the children have a great experience here every year and then they want to become counselors,” he added. “So, they’re still with us after they’re above 16. Now they want to give back. It’s a pay-it-forward type of thing.” JT

Horizon sponsors two fundraisers during the year, the Summer Dreams benefit in June and the Community Walk and Fall Festival, Oct. 28, at Camden Yards Sports Complex. For more information, visit sunrise-walks.org/Baltimore or email sharon@horizondaycamp.org.

singram@midatlanticmedia.com

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