When cancer patients are hurting, it often helps to have a special place to go to rest and speak with others who relate to their struggles. Camp Mak-A-Dream is such a place. For the past two decades, it has helped bring peace and comfort to cancer patients and their families, including Rachel Halbur of Litchfield, Minn.
Rachel was just 3 months old when her 2-year-old sister Cara was diagnosed with brain cancer. “My earliest memories are the many, many trips from our home to clinics and hospitals as my sister and I grew up.”
Over her brief life, Cara had periods when she was healthy, Rachel says, but she never was in remission. “She loved having long hair, but that wasn’t an option for her because of her treatments. She tried to embrace the peach-fuzz hair she had left into a little Mohawk, but she missed her hair.”
The cancer cost Cara control of her right side, causing her to walk with a limp and hold her right arm close to her side. Seizures also became a struggle. “She would have absolutely no control over it. I know she felt embarrassed when a seizure would happen in public,” Rachel recalls.
Help Along the WayIn 2009, as Cara approached her mid-teen years, a staff member at the Children’s Hospital suggested she attend Camp Mak-A-Dream. “The camp’s goal is to provide a fun and nurturing experience,” says Program Director Jennifer Benton. “So much of patients’ lives have been defined around things they can’t do, so we work hard to provide opportunities for things they can do and, in many cases, to stretch themselves. It’s a life-changing experience and they love it.”
The camp was the vision of Harry and Sylvia Granader, who had been instrumental in establishing the first Ronald McDonald House in their hometown of Detroit. They owned a ranch along the Clark Fork River, about an hour east of Missoula, Mont., and dreamed of providing a ranch experience for those battling cancer. In the early 1990s, they donated 87 picturesque acres to create a camp.
“The Montana community really embraced the camp’s ideals, particularly in Missoula, where businesses and individuals made huge contributions,” says Benton.
The camp is free to campers, and scholarships are available to help with travel expenses. In the 22 seasons since Camp Mak-A-Dream opened, campers have participated from across the U.S. and some internationally. A typical season now involves 550 campers in 12 camp sessions.
Horseback riding is one of the popular activities at the camp. Leonika Allen and her husband Mike Gourley, both employees at CHS Mountain West Co-op, based in Missoula, are volunteers. The cooperative has supported the camp with charity auctions of gas cards and other merchandise. They also keep the camp supplied with fuel and propane.
In the spring and fall, Leonika and Mike bring their horses and during the summer when someone else provides the horses -— they make several day trips to the camp to assist with riding.
“Many of the kids have never been on a horse before, so we make sure everything is safe and comfortable,” says Leonika. “I believe in the therapeutic value of horses, the movement, the closeness; it’s very beneficial.” She also appreciates the CHS Days of Service program, which gives CHS employees up to 16 hours away from the job each year to volunteer.
Personal and Family HealingCara Halbur lived one more year after attending the camp. “I know that it was good for her to have the opportunity to talk to others who could relate to her at camp,” says Rachel. “She was able to talk about how sad it was losing her hair, being embarrassed by her own body, things that were foreign concepts to most teens her age.
“It was healing in that respect, and in the fact that she was able to do all these incredible things like high ropes and zip-lining. Her right-sided weakness frequently made people nervous to allow her to perform tasks, but it wasn’t a limiting factor for her at camp.”
In the seven years since Cara Halbur’s camp experience, Rachel has been a regular at Camp Mak-A-Dream. In 2011, at her mother’s encouragement, Rachel attended sibling camp. A second year of week-long sibling camp followed. Since then, Rachel and her parents Jean and Gary have all volunteered there.
This year will mark Rachel’s third season as part of the summer staff. The first season she was a lifeguard; the second year she was a cabin leader; and this summer she will be an activities coordinator.
Now a junior in the nursing school at South Dakota State University with an interest in pediatric oncology, Rachel believes in giving back.
“Someone going through cancer, whether themselves or with someone in their family, has a whole set of unique experiences that not everyone can communicate about,” she says. “That’s what this camp provides. Any help someone gives goes a long way in that shared experience and healing.”
Check out the full C Magazine with this article and more.