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Seattle Washington USA

 

THE POWER OF UNCONDITIONAL LOVE : CAMP AGAPE NORTHWEST

by MARKREIMAN

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A courageous nine year old has been fighting cancer now for 2 years. His head is completely bald from chemotherapy but on his face is a radiant smile…as well as several large globs of whipping cream. He hasn’t thought once about his battle with cancer in the last hour -- his life is consumed with the whipped cream fight he is in. Actually, he hasn’t thought much about cancer all week. He just hasn’t had time. He’s just been having too much fun.

This young child and his entire family have been spending a week at Camp Agape Northwest, a very unique summer camp for kids with cancer and their families, located at All Saints Center near the town of Gig Harbor, Washington.

A BRIEF HISTORY

Combining the vision of Fr. John Bakus with the financial support of the Philoptochos Society, a women’s service organization within the Greek Orthodox church, Camp Agape’s roots go back to 1989 when summer camp opportunities for children with cancer began in the San Francisco area. The idea spread north to the Philoptochos Society in Portland, Oregon in 1995. After a very successful Kids ‘n’ Cancer camp there, Bishop Anthony proclaimed that all diocesan churches that had access to outdoor camping facilities and active Philoptochos Chapters should consider doing something for children with cancer. Soon plans began to emerge for more Kids ‘n’ Cancer summer camps. They were renamed Camp Agape followed by the area where the camp is located. Adding to already operating Camp Agape Portland and Camp Agape Fresno, an effort was jointly undertaken by the three Greek Orthodox parishes in Seattle and Tacoma, and Camp Agape Northwest held its first camp in the summer of 1997. Agape (pronounced aw-gaw’-pay), is a Greek word for love also used in Christianity, which refers to the type of love God has for humankind, Love given without conditions, without anything being asked or expected in return.

A CAMP LIKE NO OTHER

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When cancer invades a child’s life it profoundly affects the life of the entire family. The stress placed on a marriage is tremendous. The emotional needs of healthy siblings can often take a back seat to the needs of their sick brother or sister. That is precisely why from the outset Camp Agape was designed as a haven for the entire family and is one of the main things that sets this camp apart from other camps for kids with cancer. High school and college age volunteers, trained especially to work with Camp Agape kids, spend the majority of their time one-on-one with their young campers, both those battling cancer and equally with their brothers and sisters. Children with cancer are treated like regular kids and those who have felt forgotten or neglected because their sibling has cancer are showered with agape love and attention, too. Parents have the time and opportunity, often a rarity outside this special week, to sit and chat with other parents, do a craft project just for their own enjoyment, or even simply take a much needed nap.

"Camp Agape is about having fun," says Peggy Tramountanas, "and laughter is the best medicine". It was Tramountanas who initially led the efforts to organize the western Washington camp and she has twice been the annual chairwoman of this tri-parish labor-of-love.

"Camp is open to all people," she explains. "It is provided free of charge for the children with cancer and their families. You do not have to go to our church to attend the camp or even go to church at all. We include some wonderful spiritual activities and there are always people to talk to, but never," she says with emphasis, "any pressure."

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Still, the priests of the three Greek Orthodox parishes are frequently present during the week and many family members have enjoyed and appreciated the opportunities to talk with them. On any given day it would not be surprising to find one of the priests joining in on a sing-along with all the campers, sharing conversation with parents over morning coffee, or even having his face painted with bright primary colors for one of the day’s activities.

"Our camp is unique," Tramountanas explains, "because the whole family attends. All the kids in the family come, have fun, and forget about cancer for a while. One night during the week we even take the parents out for a nice dinner. For many of (the parents) it’s the first time they’ve been out together without their kids since their child was diagnosed."

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Families can come to Camp Agape for two years and many children and adults stay in touch throughout the year. They enjoy very special reunions on their return the second year connecting again with those friends they made the summer before. These are children who understand each other’s hardships like no one else is able to. Here are other parents who suffer the same hopes, fears, and extraordinary challenges of marriage, parenting, and everyday life that having a child with cancer brings with it. Close bonds are quickly established. And understanding is found in ample and loving supply.

Medical staff are in residence at the camp every day around the clock. Many of the children attend while they are in the midst of their cancer treatment, so trained nurses are on-site in a special medical cabin to administer each child’s necessary medicine. Nurses in the church community volunteer their time and over the years have reached out to other nurses and doctors. One child, whose treatment required administration at the hospital, was even flown in and out of Camp free of charge by Angel Flight Samaritans.

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Each day of Camp Agape is surrounded with a theme, be it Rodeo Day, the Olympic Games , the 50’s (complete with classic cars and a very unique performance of the musical stage extravaganza Agape Grease), County Fair Day, Western Roundup Day, Polynesian Day, and the ever-popular Greek Day.

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All Saints Center, where Camp Agape Northwest is held, also has many watersports activities available and campers of all ages and physical abilities spend hours swimming, canoeing, splashing, and playing in the water.

"There is no way to really fully describe what goes on at Camp," says Jeff Greer, who with his wife Deb have been Camp Agape’s co-directors every year since its inception. "You really have to be (there)."

Jeff and Deb Greer from Missoula, Montana, are uniquely qualified to lead the week’s many and varied activities. Jeff is an ordained minister with a degree in clinical counseling. Both have been deeply involved for years in the Young Life program of ministry and fellowship with adolescents. They not only have been the directors since Camp Agape opened its doors, but each summer they bring with them 10-15 volunteers. More than that, the Greers have walked their share of miles in the shoes of those they are leading for six days at camp. In 1991 their son Jason, at the age of 12, was diagnosed with bone cancer. They moved to Seattle and lived at Ronald McDonald House while Jason underwent treatment at Children’s Hospital.

Now a vibrant 22 years old, Jason works as a counselor at Camp and his brother is the camp photographer. "I was thrown into the same world as these kids," Jason says. "It’s great for me to be able to come back here and offer the perspective of someone who has been through it before and is still here to talk about it."

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Children at Camp Agape get one-on-one attention from their counselors.

The Greers have found that Camp impacts the lives of their campers in a powerful way that nothing else can. "We had a boy from camp whose cancer relapsed. He said that if he could have just one more wish, it would be to go to Camp Agape one more time." Parents who have children faced with cancer have also found the it a safe and supportive place to deal with the deep spiritual and emotional issues that arise. "Because this is a church sponsored camp, it makes it much easier, much more comfortable for people to talk about God, although there is never any pressure," explains Deb.

Jeff believes that one of the most amazing things about Camp Agape is the way that giving service to others impacts the camp’s many volunteers. "Encourage people to go somewhere a little uncomfortable and give of themselves in an altruistic way," he says, "and it is very powerful."

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Parents, children, and volunteer staff combine in a one-of-kind production of Agape Grease.

The sense of love and community that flourishes at Camp Agape is what most profoundly affects campers and volunteers alike. "When people give of themselves and don’t expect anything in return, says Deb, "it changes things. I can’t imagine a summer without Camp Agape...it is the most rewarding thing in our lives."

A GREAT IDEA THAT NEEDS TO FLOURISH

Renee Phillips was an adult volunteer in 1997, the very first Camp Agape Northwest. "She came home and began telling me about what an incredible experience the camp had been for her," says her husband, Tom. "I think she talked about it pretty much non-stop for a month." Renee was so enthusiastic that Tom, a business executive, became involved as a volunteer the following year.

What Tom Phillips both observed and experienced was that having the entire family at camp produced a unique result that other camps in which only the sick child attended could not duplicate.

"I saw the entire family cared for. The kids in the family who weren’t sick didn’t feel left out -- they had a great time too. And because each child had a one-on-one counselor the parents had this incredible opportunity to de-stress."

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Dancing the Limbo on Polynesian Night

Someone else was taking care of their kids, helping them have a fabulous time. For once, the parents could really, truly relax. Then when the week of camp was over it was a family adventure that they all would have in common and they could laugh, remember and treasure the memories together.

Providing a week of summer camp for kids with cancer is a great idea, but certainly not a new one. But the unique concept of including the entire family is one that Phillips really believes other groups around the country need to learn about and strongly consider incorporating into their existing camps. He intends to find the people, the informational and instructional materials, and the funding to bring the "family camp" concept to groups around the country.

"More people, lots more, need to know about this and get involved," Phillips enthuses. "I hope this story will help."

Tom, so do we!

**If you are interested in knowing more about Camp Agape Northwest, you can email Jeff and Deb Greer at mtservant@hotmail.com. Email Peggy Tramountanas at agapemom@hotmail.com. You can contact Tom Phillips at tgpsv@sunvalley.net.

 

[mark.gif (4144 bytes)Mark Reiman is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Incredible People Magazine.  He would love to hear your feedback at Mark@IncrediblePeople.com. Or visit our staff page at http://www.incrediblepeople.com/staff.htm

 

Hope      Courage     Determination      Compassion
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