For many, the words “summer camp” conjure great memories, and Mission Health’s Camp Bluebird is no exception. What makes Camp Bluebird unique is the campers – and the life-changing experience they share: a diagnosis of cancer.
Sure, there’s tons of laughter, bonfires and even s’mores, but there are also reiki (healing touch therapy) sessions, Q&As with physicians and pharmacists, and special discussions on everything from healthy eating to fear of recurrence. Since Camp Bluebird’s laser focus is cancer survivors throughout the continuum, from the newly diagnosed to those experiencing end-stage disease, each exceptionally designed camp — conducted every spring and autumn — supports campers emotionally, physically and spiritually.
“Few things are more frightening, stressful and exhausting than dealing with a cancer diagnosis. We lighten that load however we can, and know relief means something different to each camper,” said 24-year Camp Director Leslie Verner, RN, with Mission Health’s SECU Cancer Center. “Camp Bluebird got its name because the bluebird symbolizes hope, and we strive to make camp a place where, for two nights and three days, adults experiencing cancer can feel safe, pampered and, most of all, understood.”
The retreat has long been sponsored by Mission Health and the AT&T Telecom Pioneers, a telecom industry volunteer network. Gibbs Cancer Center in Spartanburg, South Carolina, became a cosponsor just this year. The serene Bonclarken Conference Center, located in Flat Rock, North Carolina, offers a perfect “campsite,” with its comfortable lodging, tasty meals and sprawling multi-acre campus, complete with a pristine lake. More often than not, if one listens closely, they’ll hear a lively chorus of laughter ringing out across Bonclarken’s grounds.
Every camp is different, but all conform to a similar daily schedule. After brief morning devotional time, it’s time for breakfast, creative activities and small-group time. After lunch, therapy animals may visit, and campers might enjoy free time by working puzzles together or enjoying the fresh air from comfortable rocking chairs.
Campers, who typically balance a full schedule of medical appointments, are free agents at camp, and can choose to do as little or as much as they wish. Devoted volunteers are also essential to camp success, and Verner enthusiastically credits them. “Camp is what it is because of our amazing volunteers, who campers come to love deeply — oncology nurses, chaplains, integrative health staff, nurse navigators, social workers, our survivorship coordinator and our AT&T Telephone Pioneers,” she said.
This spring’s celebratory 25th anniversary Camp Bluebird offered many opportunities to create art, receive integrative care and recreate. Campers made healing mandalas, enjoyed Pilates classes, got lymphedema screenings, attended a photographic presentation on bluebirds, engaged in sewing crafts or river rock painting, visited sessions on nutrition and wellness, and joined in traditional camping pastimes, like horse shoes and corn toss.
“We can be real here. I worry that hearing about my experience scares my family and friends. My fellow campers let me know it’s okay to remember what we’ve been through.”
Though many camp activities change up, some remain consistent: the opportunity to decorate a bluebird house, the touching Service of Remembrance honoring anyone lost to cancer, a themed costume party (always a blast) and a closing slideshow where campers who arrived as strangers, prepare to depart as friends.
The campers themselves are Camp Bluebird’s most powerful spokespeople. A Rutherfordton, North Carolina-based breast cancer survivor group — dubbed the “Pink Ladies” — describe camp as a sanity-saving combination of meaningful fellowship, all-out fun and validation. “I’ve never gotten this chance to share feelings and deeply bond — especially with people I’ve never met. We can be real here. I worry that hearing about my experience scares my family and friends. My fellow campers let me know it’s okay to remember what we’ve been through,” said Frieda Campfield.
“I can’t tell you how good it is being around so many who have ‘been there.’ We’re blessed that Camp Bluebird exists!”
“Survivors are often expected to quickly be ‘back to normal’ by friends and family, but we live with a new normal. I always get new strength from these wonderful people.”
Helen White marvels that after completing four months of grueling chemotherapy, camp helped bring her energy back. She danced with abandon at the “Hollywood” party, complete with red carpet and mini-Oscars bestowed upon attendees. “Who knew surviving cancer could be so much fun?” she asked, a mix of surprise and delight lingering in her voice.
Brenda Reynolds noted that, “Survivors are often expected to quickly be ‘back to normal’ by friends and family, but we live with a new normal. I always get new strength from these wonderful people.”
Interestingly, White’s and Reynolds’ statements are quite different, but not contradictory. Each illustrates that camp provides a rare opportunity to make room for the yin and yang of emotions most campers describe experiencing. Camp Bluebird’s special mix of equal parts depth and lightheartedness serves as a healing balm for the grief, confusion and anger that often affect those who receive a cancer diagnosis, and a hopeful camaraderie develops among campers through the power of the shared experience.
Denise Steuber, longtime camp counselor and Mission Cancer Survivorship Program Coordinator, gives her take on the camp’s important role: “When you think about it, Camp Bluebird is a symbol of survivorship. One of our main goals is to show our campers there is life after the diagnosis of cancer. We teach and give them the tools to cope and grow with their survivorship, along with learning how to ‘play’ again.”
Joy is possible after cancer, and Camp Bluebird ensures that patients and survivors reclaim it.
Leslie Verner, RN, is the Camp Bluebird Director and an Adult Oncology Nurse with Mission Health’s SECU Cancer Center.
About Camp Bluebird
Established in 1993, Camp Bluebird is a two-night, three-day retreat held each spring and fall for adult cancer survivors to receive support, encouragement and information from each other, as well as from cancer care professionals. The retreat is held at the beautiful Bonclarken Conference Center near Flat Rock, North Carolina. To request more information about Camp Bluebird, call Leslie Verner, RN, at 828-213-2003.