During one week of every summer, kids with no obvious commonality, school ties or similar backgrounds gather and become a cohesive group at Gilda’s Club Louisville.
Once there, the seeming strangers have the opportunity to dance and be joyful, make music together, take field trips to local water parks, and have fun, losing themselves in the simpler joys of childhood.
The gathering has all the makings of a typical youth-oriented summer camp, but during this particular week, time is also set aside for cancer education, workshops on self care and healthy living, and unique “Ask the Doc” sessions, providing these kids, ages 6-12, a personal and open forum for Q&A with local oncologists about an issue that affects each of them directly.
Camp Gilda is a chance for kids affected by cancer to meet and make friends with other youth who understand what they’re going through, said Jennifer Beasley, Youth Program Manager at Gilda’s Club. This camp allows youths who are connected to cancer – either their own or an immediate family member – a chance to have fun while being supported, she explained.
On Friday, at the end of the camp, the kids organize a Camp Gilda Carnival, open to the public for all children to enjoy. During the Carnival, campers organize and offer games, inflatables, a cake wheel, and grilled foods. Donations are collected, and all proceeds are given to a charitable organization of the campers’ choosing.
“Cancer often makes kids feel powerless, so giving them the chance to help others really creates a lasting impact for the community and for campers and their families.” Beasley said. This year, campers choose to donate $1,200 in Carnival proceeds to Kosair Charities.
Beasley went on to say that the camp would not be possible without a core of dedicated volunteers. “Camp Gilda simply would not happen without the enthusiastic support of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW),” she said.
“This year, our theme was ‘School of Rock,’ and our volunteers could be found dancing happily, as campers played disc jockey alongside DJ-Q from B-96.” In addition to supplying breakfast, lunch, and snacks for hungry campers, volunteers ran the grill, and helped campers organize and run each of the Carnival games.
“Our volunteers were truly the pillars of our community Carnival,” Beasley said. “A week-long day camp for kids affected by cancer may look like play to the casual observer, but the women of the NCJW know the hard work that it requires to keep everything running smoothly,” she said. “They provide the kind of support and heavy lifting that make such an event for these kids possible.”
When volunteers Judith Borinstein and Helen Wahba noticed a few years ago that food donations for the week-long camp were, at times, sugary or sparse, they offered to take the lead in the kitchen.
“I’m a nurse, so nutrition is really important to me,” Wahba said. “Good, nutritious food helps build strength for all of us, especially if your body is run down from stress or illness.” She added, “When Judy and I took over the meal prep for campers three years ago, we began bringing in fruits, vegetables, and some of our own recipes. No more donuts for breakfast; we make our own blintzes for blintz casserole and spinaka in phyllo dough. “Even if the campers have never tried something before,” she continued, “I ask that they give it a chance. Nine times out of 10, they come back for more.
“Some even ask for our dishes if they come back the following year,” she grinned. “We also give them special treats, like Knox Blox—different flavors of Jell-O cubes you can pick up and eat with your hands. The kids just love them.”
Wahba, who is a Board member of the NCJW, said she loves volunteering at Gilda’s Club and providing nutritious meals for kids in the camp. She said Gilda’s Club is a phenomenal charity to support because it provides so much to people going through a cancer journey without asking for anything in return from them.
Borinstein agreed that Gilda’s Club and the kids she meets there hold a special place in her heart. “When one volunteers at Gilda’s Club, you definitely receive more than you give. The staff is so grateful, no matter how little or how much you do,” Borinstein added. “There is a reason it is one of the best Gilda’s Clubs in the country.”
A mother of two campers expressed her sincere appreciation for what her kids have experienced through camps there.
“My children have been able to learn, grow, and mature with the assistance of fellow campers and the wonderful Gilda’s Club staff and volunteers. These individuals have donated their time, talents and abilities to assist children who have suffered and survived or been on a cancer journey with a parent, sibling, or friend,” April Auspland wrote.
“Lifelong friendships and nurturing relationships are being formed during these camps,” she added. “They will remember that life goes on, no matter where the cancer journey takes our family and our children; life still goes on.”
Judy Shapira is the chair of NCJW’s Camp Gilda project.