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LSSU has plenty to be thankful for

LSSU senior Bo Cheesman is a companion to a young cancer survivor at Camp Quality

Nov. 23, 2004

By Lindsey Mechalik and Linda Bouvet

For a Lake Superior State student-athlete, a typical day involves attending two to four classes, grunting through two hours of practice, spending a few hours on homework or a study table, catching up on class work after a road trip, and maybe...just maybe having an hour or two to socialize.

For a child with cancer, a typical day includes a trip to the doctor or hospital, having blood drawn or an IV pump poison into your veins, undergoing surgery, and battling agonizing side effects of anti-cancer toxins or depression.

When LSSU athletes and children with cancer joined forces during a special week last August, the energy generated and experiences shared were far from typical.

Laker women's basketball players Randi and Mandi Johnson, and hockey players Bo Cheesman and Alex Dunn spent the second week of August getting a strong dose of perspective while serving as "companions" at Camp Quality, a week-long summer camp near Petoskey, where kids with cancer are allowed to be kids again. While the kids may have been at camp trying to forget about how sick they are, the volunteers left camp with a reminder of just how fortunate they are.

Camp Quality USA, Inc., offers year-round support programs in 14 states for children with cancer and their families. Although childhood cancer mortality rates have declined since 1978, the cancer incidence rate has increased and Michigan ranks second in the nation behind California in the number of childhood cancer deaths. Camp Quality gives families a much-needed break from the stress of battling cancer.

Randi Johnson, a LSSU senior, has volunteered at Camp Quality-Michigan for two years, while Mandi, a sophomore, has enjoyed three summers at the camp. The St. Ignace natives became involved with Camp Quality because of their older sister, Lani, 25, who has been volunteering there since she was 18 years old. Cheesman has been a companion for three years. Last summer was Dunn's first experience.

"I was in England for a year, but I was positive I wanted to do it," Randi Johnson said. "When I was in high school, I helped Lani with Special Olympics for swimming. She put us on the right track."

"I wasn't as sure," Mandi admitted. "I was intimidated at first, but I was only 18. They talked me into it."

These days, the Johnson clan can't imagine a summer without Camp Quality. The entire family gets involved in some way, whether it's helping with special projects or filling a shift in the dining hall. The LSSU athletes are among the several volunteers recruited by Lani. The Johnson sisters, Cheesman and Dunn hope to see more LSSU students get involved because of their great potential to be role models to the youngsters.

Being a companion isn't for everybody. It takes some energy to be a companion for kids who are very good at disguising the fact that they are sick.

"Camp Quality is a non-profit organization," Cheesman said. "Volunteers like Alex and me are companions for a camper for the week. We fill out a questionnaire, and they match us with a camper that has similar likes and interests. It is a week full of events where the kids get to relax. They know that everyone there as a camper understands the situation."

Camp Quality provides a camp-like experience for children, ages four to 18, who come from a variety of backgrounds.

"It is a camp for kids with cancer," Dunn said. "But, the campers can also be siblings of the campers who are, or who had been suffering with cancer. The siblings are involved with the whole situation and have to deal with a lot too. The companions don't know if their camper is one of the siblings or if they are the one with the cancer. Unless your camper tells you, you won't know for sure if they have cancer. We treat them all the same. It is totally up to the camper to bring it up. We don't ask any questions about it. The camp is to get their situation off of their minds, and for them to have fun for a week. Camp takes them away from the thoughts of having to get treatments at the hospitals and visit their doctors."

"It also takes the stress off of the parents for a week," Cheesman added. "The parents know that they are dropping their children off in a safe environment. The parents get a week off of the same situation that the kids have to go through."

Randi Johnson was a companion to a nine-year-old who has attended the camp for six years and is now free of cancer. Mandi Johnson's pal was a 10-year-old girl who had lost her hair because of chemotherapy, but felt comfortable enough to take her bandana off before the week ended. Mandi learned recently that the cancer from which her young friend was suffering may have returned.

The camp prides itself with keeping an upbeat atmosphere. The children look out for each other.

"Anyone observing this camp would never know that the campers have cancer by the way they act," said Cheesman. "There may be those with physical signs like hair loss, or they might have lost a limb. But with the way they act and the energy level they have, you would never know that some of them are dealing with cancer."

"It's amazing watching what they can do," Randi Johnson said. "There was a boy who was blind. He knew everything about you. There was another boy with one leg who could climb the phone pole, walk across the beam and ride down the zip line. He was fearless. He also said, `I don't have anything to be afraid of.'"

Each summer the camp has a different activity theme. Last summer the camp celebrated "New York, New York," with a grand ball and a night on the town.

"There is a dance every year," Dunn said. "But this year, since the theme was `New York, New York,' they had a much more formal dance. There was a tuxedo shop in town that donated tuxedos for each of the boys. The girls all wore prom-type dresses. All of the campers were picked up in limos or old-fashioned cars to be taken to a castle in Petoskey. Everything was immaculate. It was like a prom. There were horse and carriage rides. It was a great time for the kids."

Other activities include concerts, motorcycle and hot-air balloon rides, a talent show and softball with ex-Tigers' players.

Being a rookie to camp, every experience was new for Dunn.

"My camper was probably one of the most energetic kids at the camp," Dunn said. "He wanted to do everything all of the time. He wanted to do a skit in the talent show. I ended up being Drew Carey and we did an improv routine of `Whose Line is it Anyway?' It was a lot of fun. My camper has been going to camp for almost six years. This was my first year, so he almost showed me around camp."

Michigan campers also made a banner to help welcome Texans to their first Camp Quality experience. Camp Quality-Michigan was in its 17th year. Camps opened in Texas, New Jersey and Indiana for the first time in 2004.

"It was great to see a new addition to the program," Cheesman said. "They had over 90 kids at their camp. That means that they were able to get over 300 volunteers to help run the camp. That is pretty remarkable. That just goes to show you that it is not always about dollar bills. The volunteers take a week off work to help out. There are people who have been donating their time to the camp for more than 30 years. It is not just a phase for these people but a summer routine. Some of the volunteers plan their family vacations around camp. That is one of the great things about it."

Cheesman now looks at life in a new way after his experiences at Camp Quality.

"This camp shows you what real strength is about," Cheesman said. "It is not always about how much weight you can lift or how big and tall you are. My companion this year had lost one of his legs because of cancer. He was out there playing basketball and climbing the rock walls. It is amazing what we take for granted. These kids don't take anything for granted because they live with a battle every day. It is a battle to shower or to get out of bed, but they don't see it that way. There are five-year-old kids with prosthetic legs who climb 150 feet into the air on rock walls. There is a (repelling) zip line that they all love. There is no stopping these kids."

"As college hockey players, we sometimes lose games and we get upset. But I tell my team, we know kids that have cancer. We just lost a hockey game. Let's put everything in perspective. Sure hockey is the most important thing for us at the time. But once the game is over, there are a lot more important things like family and health. It is stuff like that that helps us put our goals in order. We play a game, but there are these kids who are playing a game with consequences where they could lose their lives. That is one of the great things that we get out of this. We don't volunteer for people to see that we are after any recognition. Alex and I have been fortunate enough not to have cancer. So why not help someone? It is just one week to give, and it's a week of fun.

The camp encourages the "companions" and campers to keep in touch after their week at Camp Quality.

"I have talked to my camper about five times since camp," Cheesman said. "He tried to get down to the Joe Louis game but ended up having another commitment. He wants to try to make it up here to see a game."

The great experiences the kids have Camp Quality keep the campers going all through the year.

"There is one night during the week that is remembrance night," Cheesman said. "It is a night dedicated to the kids who didn't make it back to camp that next summer. One thing that the camp does is make it where the kids want to come back. Their goal is to get back to camp. It gives them something to look forward to every summer. It gives them something to fight for. They fight and won't let it take them over. We now have companions that were campers. They battled cancer. Because of the camp, they fought cancer and are now in remission. It is a mental thing for the kids even if they don't know it. They just think it is a week of fun, but they want that week of fun every summer. That helps a lot with the daily battles."

"After camp is over, all three of us (Mandi, Lani and I) go back and sit with Mom and have a good cry," Randi Johnson said. "It's not about feeling sorry for them. There are so many emotions. We are thankful for our own health, and hurt for what they've been through."

Dunn and Cheesman encourage other LSSU students to volunteer.

"A majority of the `companion' volunteers are college-aged kids," Dunn said. "They are trying to get more people our age to come in and help. The `companions' need a lot of energy to keep up with the kids. College students can be great role models for the campers. We are going to bring up the opportunity to the guys on our team. I know a lot of guys would love to help out. It would be great for some more students from Lake State to volunteer. If anyone wants to know more about the camp, please let us know."

Mandi Johnson said that Camp Quality has completely changed her life.

"I'm so glad I went," she said. "I needed to put my life in perspective. I've learned that everything doesn't revolve around me. It has changed me a lot."

"A lot of people don't realize what is really important unless something like this directly affects them," Cheesman said. "It is real life staring you in the face when you have a four-year-old in front of you who is battling cancer. They are in the fight of their lives. But for one week, all they are worried about is beating you in tetherball. It's a great experience. I would really hope to get more people to volunteer. People should volunteer somewhere. It doesn't have to be Camp Quality. But put your good knowledge to use to give back to the community."

Lake Superior State Men's Ice Hockey
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