HARDWICK — Just outside of Newton, in the hamlet of Hardwick, there’s a place called Happiness is Camping, which is a ray of light for children with cancer. It’s a place for hope and as the name suggests, simply, happiness for these kids.
Lisa Benzaia began working at Happiness is Camping since last spring as the office manager. Like many, though, she lived in the area the majority of her life. She had very limited knowledge about Happiness is Camping. Many don’t know it exists. It’s a true treasure and a gift for the children it serves.
Founded in 1980, Happiness is Camping’s mission is to provide children with cancer and their siblings a traditional residential camp experience with sophisticated medical care for campers on and off treatment. These children come to this camp free of charge, where they can put aside their illness and have fun. For 35 summers, Happiness Is Camping has been able to serve over 18,000 children with cancer from more than 25 New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania hospitals.
Happiness is Camping is one of the few sleep-away camps dedicated exclusively to children with cancer, running for a full camp season each year. While most camps for children with cancer rent a facility for one week, Happiness is Camping is the only camp dedicated exclusively to children with cancer that operates for five week-long, overnight sessions within its own facility. Led by the executive director, the summer full-time camp staff includes a camp director, activities specialists, paid counselors and other staffers, plus teams of up to 40 volunteers who work for week-long sessions. The volunteer medical staff – doctors and nurses from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, The Children’s Hospital at Montefiore, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and Alfred I. DuPont Hospital for Children – provides medical supervision of the highest quality with facilities for kids requiring chemotherapy, at risk of bleeding and infection or with significant physical disabilities.
“Campers at Happiness is Camping leave the hospital and have fun at a place where they know they won’t be judged for a bald head or prosthetic limb,” Benzaia said. Happiness Is Camping helps the children develop friendships and focus on the personal development because so many miss out on normal social activities due to their illness and medical-related absences during the school year. The camp helps children learn that cancer is not all about death and dying, but rather about a chronic illness. “Whether they live a lifetime of coping with cancer or pass away at a young age, cancer is always about living well, Benzaia said. “Camp allows children to live again. Camp opens up these children to a world of realizing that they are not alone and that there is hope even in death. Each camper takes home a new meaning of life and the power of living well.”
“If you walk around our pool, you won’t notice the wigs thrown on the ground or the prosthetic legs lining the fence,” Benzaia said. “Instead, you will see children splashing in the water, laughing and playing together. Our program schedule mirrors a traditional camp. Our kids ride on the zipline, climb the climbing wall, shoot archery and voraciously compete in our annual, summer-long Color Wars competition.
For many children, these events mark the first physical activity they’ve done since their diagnosis, allowing them to recapture the fun of their childhood.
Happiness Is Camping helps children develop friendships and focus on the personal development because so many miss out on normal social activities due to their illness and medical-related absences during the school year. Camp helps children learn that cancer is not all about death and dying, but about a chronic illness. Whether they live a lifetime of coping with cancer or pass away at a young age, cancer is always about living well. Camp allows children to live again. Camp opens up these children to a world of realizing that they are not alone and that there is hope even in death. Each camper takes home a new meaning of life and the power of living well.
“It’s both a positive and a negative that Happiness is Camping is a hidden gem,” Benzaia said. “The positive part is that the campers experience an amazing residential camp experience without interference from outside influences. “
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