With COVID everyone has faced challenges, and for families with a child with cancer, it is far worse. They have a child already battling a disease, secluded, isolated and now high risk for a virus. Certainly, a nightmare playing out in real life. These families needed an outlet and a space to relieve the stress and feelings of being alone. When given the task of creating a completely online space for children with cancer, their siblings, and parents to connect during quarantine Special Love was ready and acted immediately. Quarantine began in March 2020 and by the 26th of that same month, virtual programs, or VOICE (Virtual Online In-home Camp Experience) was born, and we never looked back. The next big challenge how does one create what is described as "the best week of my life" in a patient's home, and if that wasn't challenge enough, what about children in the hospital?
Quickly learning all about how to run an online space the Special Love staff became both virtual meeting room AND shipping experts. It would be one thing to share time on the screen, but next was to figure out how to make it a shared experience. At a traditional in-person camp children can be creative and dance their hearts out, but at the root of all that fun is the comradery shared by these brave young people battling cancer or the long-term effects of treatment. The ‘Camp-in-a-box’ was born! Boxes large enough for some campers to fit in were packed with care to the brim with every, down to the ¼ tsp of baking powder for cooking class, supply to bring the camp experience home. Campers set up shop on the kitchen table, in their rooms, outside on the patio, and even in their hospital rooms.
Special Love staff sat back proud, but also a little shocked. We had discovered a beautiful silver lining; multiple in-patient campers were with us! A young boy named Sawyer had never attended one of our programs and if camp were in-person he would have missed out, but not in 2020. As challenging a year, it was Sawyer could pick up a hammer, paintbrush or mixing bowl and participate right alongside (the screen) with other campers. And although counties or states away from each other Sawyer and other campers and volunteers could connect! Sawyer’s mother Jenna shared with the program staff: “We cannot thank you all enough for a truly remarkable week! Sawyer had such a great time as a first-time camper and has made wonderful memories. So grateful for Camp Fantastic! How How!”
Reflecting on the last 18 months Special Love staff understand this discovery is just too great to move on from when transitioning back to in-person programs (hopeful to be in 2022). Going forward there will always be a virtual segment of Camp Fantastic. The campers that sometimes just days before camp receive the news they cannot go because of their health, will now have the option to be part of so much of camp. They can communicate with fellow campers and volunteers in real time and even submit a video for the Talent Show, a beloved part of camp, and so much more. With funds from the CFC Special Love hopes to purchase devices (including iPads, GoPro Cameras, and other streaming devices) and reinforce the technology at our camp facility (the Northern Virginia 4-H Center) to handle streaming and video conferencing.
The best lesson learned during COVID, there is always a way to connect!