“When fear knocks, let faith answer the door,” Robin Roberts — Good Morning America anchor and cancer survivor — is fond of saying.
Staff and volunteers at Camp Quality Ohio answer the door with not only faith, but also a huge infusion of fun at its free weeklong camp for children diagnosed with cancer and their siblings.
The camp — located at Craftsmen Park in New Franklin and powered by donations — provides a much-needed escape from the reality of day-to-day, hand-to-hand combat with cancer for these campers ages 4-18, and for the parents who drop them off knowing they’re in good hands and confident in the camp’s laughter-as-the-best-medicine philosophy. Adult companions are assigned to each camper and five volunteer nurses are on site to dispense chemotherapy and other medications.
Tears will flow from the eyes of campers and volunteers alike as camp winds down today. But laughter was everywhere and pretty much nonstop the entire week, even at night when the lights were supposed to be out.
Even so, losing sleep trying to figure out what activities to engage in the next day — boating, swimming, fishing, dancing, arts and crafts, karaoke, movie nights, therapy dogs and more — was a welcome departure for these 71 campers from what normally keeps them awake at night.
Regardless of gender or age, there was real consensus when it came to the prom.
Even the boys were on board, actually eager to don tuxedoes, climb into stretch limousines and dine at nearby Prime at Anthe’s and dance to music provided by DJ Rick Baum of Digital Jams.
However, it wasn’t just the big dance — as grand and rowdy as it was — that piqued my interest.
The pre-prom preparation on Wednesday was one for the record books with so many capable hands working nonstop for three hours, transforming the campers into glamour girls and action heroes for a magical evening.
Shelly Talbot-Hepner and Jeff Scott, owners of Scott Talbot Salonspas, brought 18 stylists, makeup artists and manicurists, and boxes filled with the tools of their trade as they turned the camp’s dance hall into a first-class beauty salon. The owners have provided the free service for nine years, and also do huge fundraisers to help ensure Camp Quality has all that it needs to keep going.
This was a delight for survivors like 15-year-old veteran camper Ashlee of Akron, who is in remission, and anxious to have her healthy hair styled to coordinate with the yellow, strapless, poofy-at-the-bottom dress she chose. All of the dresses and accessories were donated from a variety of sources, and the tuxedoes were provided free by Tuxedo Junction.
Ten-year-old Rachael of Pataskallo, a four-year survivor who is in remission, had her long locks styled a la Beyonce to compliment the short, black-and-gold strapless number she selected. The best thing about coming to camp “is getting to meet new friends who are going through the same thing,” Rachael said.
Stylists Melissa Henley said there is one reason and one reason alone that she keeps coming back to provide “celebrity” treatment for the campers’s prom: “I love to see the same ones come back year after year.”
Stylist Colleen Papciak of Atwater agreed, adding the joy she gets out of watching these kids’ smiles is hard to explain.
Iryna Bodnar of Kent — a companion for 11-year-old survivor Kiala of Beaver Creek — said, “seeing the kids forget about the usual stuff they have to face!” is an indescribable lure.
“My dress is blue and so-o-o fancy it can stand on its own!” Kiala, a smile taking over her face, exhaled as she instructed the stylist to spray some blue in her hair to coordinate with her dress.
Six-year-old survivor Ava of Munroe Falls — accompanied by her companion, Stevie Millick of Lakewood — was very specific about how she wanted her light brown hair to look: “I want it up to go with the white wedding dress I’m wearing.” A true diva, Ava, when asked about her dance moves, announced: “I’ll be dancing and doing the fist bump!”
She performed Justin Bieber’s Baby at karaoke and was putting the finishing touches on what she called an “original” act for the talent show, Millick marveled.
Sensitive to everyone’s journeys, the stylists paid as much attention in coming up with appropriate hairdos for the girls with only a few wisps of hair as they did for those with much more.
The boys were just as interested in employing the stylists’ services, mostly for gel to amp up their Mohawks, or spray-on temporary dyes.
Eight-year-old survivor Austin of Galloway gave two thumbs up after the stylist pumped up the volume on his blond hair with a burgundy spray. Five-year-old Ryan of Cuyahoga Falls, also a survivor, couldn’t decide between blue and green hair color, so he opted for both.
Soon the campers made their way to their cabins for the much-awaited wardrobe change.
Wow! Wow! and Wowee!
A quick call to Thomas Limousine Service saved the day for these party animals after another service opted out at the last minute in favor of paying clients. Not only did Thomas send over three stretch limousines with veteran drivers Don, Scott and James at the wheel, but also owners Nancy and Don Brodie and general manager Brian Warren came to check things out.
“We just wanted to see for ourselves what goes on here,” Nancy Brodie said adding, “We’ll be doing this every year. We certainly didn’t want to leave these kids stranded!”
After posing for photos in front of the limos, this stylish crew was whisked away to the elegance of Prime at Anthe’s, which year after year picks up the costs for the children’s meals. Camp Quality fundraising coordinator Brad Palmer escorted campers to one table to pick up their corsages and boutonnieres, and to another filled with props for the Provo Photo Booth for more laughs for their memory books.
Camp Quality — many things to many people — is not without its love connections, said Palmer, who has been volunteering with the camp for eight years. That’s where he met Samantha Hall, also a volunteer; they were married in March.
Camp director Kerri Franks and assistant director Tom Quinn say the organization attracts lots of talented volunteers, folks like retired Akron Police Lt. Ron DiSpina and his daughter Angela DiSpina Shumate, who operates a school for children with autism in North Canton; and Mary Ellen Yeager and Pat Matthews, both of Stow.
Nine-year-old Leonda of Youngstown — whose hair was accentuated with silver sparkles to go with her Marilyn-Monroe like white dress — was welcomed with open arms. She attended last year for the first time with her 4-year-old brother, who has since died. New friends had her on the dance floor doing the Cupid Shuffle and freestyling to Taylor Swift’s 22 and other hits. At the end of the evening, Leonda’s shoes were somewhere in a big pile of heels, sandals and flip-flops.
Despite certain realities, Camp Quality Ohio is a happy place.
Jim Thornton of Copley Township — who drove a golf cart all week, shuttling campers from one venue to the next — knows that better than most. His beloved granddaughter Shelly Thornton, who lost her long cancer battle earlier this year at the age of 8, camped there four years. “I wanted to pay it forward and I thought being here would help me,” Thornton said.
Camp Quality, in its wisdom, works hard to make the prom an over-the-moon experience for all, knowing that not all will win the cancer battle and be able to attend their high school proms.
So these campers are taking a cue from the lyrics of Lee Ann Womack:
“When you get the choice to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance.”
And dance they did!
Jewell Cardwell can be reached at 330-996-3567 or email@example.com. Last names of children are withheld to protect their families from solicitation or harassment.