Happy campers at Camp Fantastic

The speakers blared dance music. Dozens of youngsters swayed, gyrated, stepped and waved their arms to the rhythmic sounds blasting from the DJâ??s tent.

Last Wednesday, buses carrying 102 children with cancer-related diseases arrived at Camp Fantastic, with a sheriffâ??s department motorcycle escort rivaling a presidential motorcade. The annual event, sponsored by the Culpeper Rotary Club, is held at the 28-acre Southwind Farm in White Shop owned by Kacey and Marshall Jenkins.
Camp Fantastic, operated by Winchester-based Special Love, is a week-long camping program offering classes, themed adventures, campfires and other activities, all conducted under the watchful eyes of trained medical staff and camp counselors, some of them former campers.

Abbyâ??s Story
Among the many dancers rocking to the music was freckle-faced 16-year-old Abby Snider of Winchester, who stopped several times to recover and wipe away perspiration caused by the vigorous dance moves before rejoining the throng of undulating bodies. To watch her boogie, no one would know that she had been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia about 15 months before.

However, Abbyâ??s courageous road to recovery has been less than straight and smooth. There have been speed bumps and sharp curves along the way. She no longer plays basketball, soccer or serves as a cheerleader.

She fell behind in her classes at Mountain View Christian Academy, a private school in Winchester. Abby missed all but three months of her freshman year and her entire sophomore year except for five weeks. She noted that her high school experience evaporated after being diagnosed with cancer.

â??I tried to go back to school, but I was so sick. I got real depressed,â? said Abby. â??I was like in bed. I didnâ??t really want to do my work. I was really lazy. I watched TV all day.â?

The depression wasnâ??t so much because of the leukemia diagnosed days after her 15th birthday or the treatments. She battled the depression caused by not being with friends, attending classes and participating in sports.

â??I am a very social person,â? said Abby, her eyes sparkling, dimples showing and a wide smile beaming across her face.

With the help of tutors and her dogged determination, Abby has sustained straight Aâ??s. She is entering her junior year in high school.

However, Abby still receives chemotherapy and radiation cancer treatment â?? now about once a month as opposed to two to three times a week â?? at the U.Va. Childrenâ??s Hospital in Charlottesville. She is familiar with every stretch of Interstates 81 and 64 during the two hour 15 minute trip, one way.

Since being diagnosed Abby has been hospitalized for pancreatitis five times â?? the most recent bout occurred in June. Now in maintenance, Abby remains upbeat about 17 more months of treatments.

â??I am going to beat it,â? she said, with confidence, as she attended her second Camp Fantastic. Fundraisers, including bake sales, help defray some of the mounting medical costs.

Sweet Sixteen
As Abby planned to jump on the hay wagon for a ride with other campers, she recounted how she was scammed, in a well-meaning way. She was asked to give a speech to a group associated with Stillbrave, a childhood cancer foundation. Abby worked on her speech that she hoped would inspire and help other children dealing with cancer. It was a speech she would never give. The speech was to be given about three weeks after her 16th birthday, which she couldnâ??t celebrate in style because she was too sick.

In preparation for the speech, Abby wore a long dress, necklace, earrings and makeup professionally applied. Her hair was still extremely short. A limousine carried her to the hotel where she was to deliver the speech.

â??It was a whole set-up,â? she said.

Abby was told that the camera crew following her around as she prepared for the speech was for a video. It was a WJLA-TV news team videoing the event. As she entered the ballroom of the hotel, a shocked Abby squealed as she was greeted by family and friends. It was a surprise birthday party.

â??I always wanted my Sweet 16 to be a surprise,â? said Abby. It was a surprise seen on ABC7 News and for anyone to view on YouTube.

Caring Community
Camp Fantastic lasts more than three hours. Rappahannock Electric Cooperative brought bucket trucks for kids to look down on the camp site. The Reva Volunteer Fire Department brought a fire engine and Culpeper police and sheriffâ??s deputies were on hand with personnel, motorcycles and police vehicles.

Lynn Ritter of Gold Rush Farm participated for the fourteenth year, bringing docile Nigerian Dwarf Goats for the children to cradle and love. â??It gives them a childhood,â? said Ritter about why participating is so important. â??I have respect for these kids.â?

Special Love CEO Dave Smith calls the afternoon in Culpeper, â??Free range camping.â? Katharine Payne painstakingly placed fake tattoos on children.

Alesia Allen, 13, of McLean, Virginia, played miniature golf on a course supervised by Chuck Stephenson and his wife Cathy. Chuck wore U.Va. attire, while Cathy sported a Va. Tech T-shirt. Their son made the course as an Eagle Scout project and donated it to Camp Fantastic.

Culpeper Sheriffâ??s Office Lt. Nick White attempted to show Allen how to putt.

A tent, with fans oscillating, was set up near Jenkinsâ?? home contained two cots. â??We have an infirmary here,â? said Katie Sarsfield, a registered nurse. The staff brings all the medical supplies needed. One child was being tended to by the medical staff.

â??We are the gateway to food,â? observed Registered Nurse Kara McDonald.

As the smell of hot dogs and hamburgers wafted over the farm, McDonald explained before meals all campers receive their required medication, called the Med Line.

Two counselors remember the Med Line and Camp Fantastic well.

Brian Lowe, 24, of Germantown, Maryland was diagnosed with cancer as a 10-year-old. He also had a brain tumor.

â??When I was a kid, I spent time at camp,â? said Lowe, who gives back to the program as a counselor.

Morgan Trena, 19, of Virginia Beach spent seven years as a camper after being diagnosed with cancer at age nine and attending her first camp as a 10-year-old.

â??I fell in love with it,â? said Trena, now a counselor. â??I try to get them off their thought of cancer.â?

Smith, Special Loveâ??s CEO, said cancer survival rates have improved through the years, with about an 80 percent survival rate now. But he knows some of the campers here this year may not be here next year.

â??Theyâ??re getting better,â? said Smith, as he watched the children playing and having fun. â??They have a long ways to go.â?

Long time educator, school board member and Camp Fantastic supporter Bill Simms also watched the frolicking children and smiled.

â??People think they got problems,â? he noted. â??If they come out and see these kids…all their problems go away.

Wally Bunker is a freelance contributor with the Culpeper Times. You may reach him at wallybunker@outlook.com