Katie Strumpf
"Helping kids with cancer.......a cancer survivor's story"  

Cancer survivor: camp 'kind of crafted my positive attitude'

By Jessica J. Burchard - The Winchester Star

Winchester Twelve years after she stopped attending Camp Fantastic, Katie Strumpf is returning as a camp counselor.

Strumpf, 27, credits the week-long program for youths with cancer as changing her outlook on life. She was diagnosed with leukemia cancer of the blood cells at age 10.

With hesitation, she agreed to attend Camp Fantastic in August 1991.

"I had this idea in my mind where they made you sit around and discuss cancer," Strumpf said, laughing at the memory.

Camp Fantastic was created in 1983 by Tom and Sheila Baker of Winchester, seven years after their daughter Julie died of lymphoma. The camp is sponsored by Special Love Inc., the Bakers' larger cancer-awareness organization.

The couple wanted to give children diagnosed with cancer a place where they could be accepted and enjoy a camp experience. Campers 7 to 17 years old spend hours running, horseback-riding, swimming, and doing other camp activities.

"The Bakers took their experience and made it a positive one," said Dave Smith, CEO of Special Love. "Many of our campers come back as counselors."

From 1991 through 1995, Strumpf participated in the camp at the 4-H Center in Front Royal.

"The camp kind of crafted my positive attitude toward [having survived cancer]," she said.

Strumpf's experiences prompted her to write a compact 50-page book about options for young adults who have survived cancer. "I Didn't Sign up for This" offers many helpful suggestions to youths going through cancer recovery.

"It talks about how the rest of your life is affected," she said. "I wanted it to be short so that a child could read it in one or two settings."

Strumpf plans to bring one or two copies with her to the camp, set for Aug. 12-17.

She remembers bonding with other campers over theme activities and discussions about their cancers.

"They do everything possible to make sure you have a good time," she said. "You have a camp experience running around and doing different things but at the same time people will say things like 'I had that type of cancer.'"

Camp Fantastic has helped 2,100 youths from Virginia and surrounding areas during the last 25 years.

Strumpf is eager to return as a camp counselor this summer: "When people get involved with this organization, they're so touched by it that [they] want to give their time."

Although Special Love focuses on children with cancer, the organization has expanded its programs to accommodate the families and friends of cancer survivors.

"After 25 years, we're beginning to broaden our reach beyond a week of camp," Smith said. "The week of camp spawned many weekends where we bring along friends and family."

Special Love now hosts weekends and camps for full families as well as siblings, friends, and others connected to children with cancer.

"All the programs we did really came about because we began to identify needs Camp Fantastic wasn't meeting," he said.

Smith has been an active part in the organization's growth. He started as a volunteer with Special Love through 4-H and is now one of three full-time administrative staff members in the nonprofit organization. He's been employed with Special Love since 1987.

Within the last two years, the organization has broadened its objective to reflect the expansion of programs.

"We're a community of support," Smith said. "We've re-examined ourselves. We're not just a camp for kids."

Along with its range of programs, Special Love's budget has grown. The organization now has an annual operating budget of $600,000. About 40 percent comes from fundraisers, with 30 percent from grants and 30 percent from contributions. The cost of salaries and office maintenance takes about 18 percent of the budget. "For a nonprofit, anything under 25 percent is pretty good," Smith said.

Even with the increased awareness of cancer and medical treatments, Special Love and its programs continue to be needed. "When you see the mission of this organization, you think, 'How can I not be a part of this?'" Strumpf said. "I think if cancer were to be cured tomorrow, people would still want to be involved in it."

... www.speciallove.org