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Nevada foundation strives to make virtual Camp Cartwheel fun for kids

Every morning at Camp Cartwheel starts with camp songs and dances, reminding children they are the world’s greatest. But this year, instead of dancing by the trees in the Spring Mountains, campers were dancing by their computer and tablet screens.

Camp Cartwheel, the Nevada Childhood Cancer Foundation’s four-day camp for children diagnosed with chronic or critical illnesses and their siblings, had to go virtual for the second year in a row.

Uncertainty surrounding the pandemic and the vaccine rollout led a volunteer committee to leave the camp mostly virtual, said Andrea Rapanos, NVCCF’s director of patient programs and services.

“Is it ideal or ultimately what we wanted? No, and that part kind of sucks. It really does,” Rapanos said. “But it is what it is and we have to prioritize the health of our clients over anything. We want to make sure that everybody is safe and the only way that we can see to do that was just to one more year, keep it virtual.”

The camp, usually held annually at Torino Ranch in Lovell Canyon, brings about 210 children for a week of medically supervised camp at no cost to families. The foundation fundraises annually for the per-child cost of $250 for children to have fun in an accommodating camp and with others that understand their life.

Kids between ages 5 and 9 are bused in and out daily, while those ages 10 to 17 can stay overnight in cabins.

It’s special for families with children who may not get those summer camp experiences, said Las Vegas resident Melody Millett, whose 10-year-old son, Dorian, is a leukemia survivor.

“When your child has cancer, they miss out on swimming lessons and all the normal kids stuff, because they’re in the hospital getting infusions and fighting for their life,” Millett said. “My kids anticipate Camp Cartwheel all year long because they feel like a star. A luxury bus picks them up and they get a little shopping spree at a store there. It’s all about them and the magic.”

The pandemic changed those traditional activities. Last year, camp leaders moved to the virtual format about a month before the camp launched — something they were able to handle because the Carpenter 1 Fire occurred near the ranch one week before camp in 2013, forcing them to find a new venue.

This year, camp leaders still hoped to keep normalcy in every other fashion. Festivities started on July 20, when families could pick up a “swag bag” full of goodies for the week. Each day began with videos of camp songs and consisted of livestreamed activities, including cooking demonstrations and arts and crafts. Volunteers encouraged campers to get to know their “cabinmates” through games played on Zoom.

The week culminated with an in-person barbecue on Saturday at the nonprofit foundation’s headquarters, where campers got to see each other, sign their camp yearbooks and play together.

Most families were disappointed to not visit the ranch, but welcomed the hybrid approach this year, Rapanos said. Millett said her children, between ages 4 and 13, were glad to have any form of programming. They realized the pandemic made a lot of planning fluid.

“That’s kind of how the cancer lifestyle is for us, too,” Millett said. “There’s so much you can’t plan for, so having these solid support systems in place to still have community is so important for our kids who have battled cancer, and are still battling, so there’s not that isolation.”

Las Vegas resident Candy Viska said she was grateful that the camp continued both years. Her four children have attended the camp since her daughter was diagnosed with systemic juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. It was important to keep the sense of community strong, she said.

“They really do make you feel like a family, even though you may go a whole year without seeing any of these people,” Viska said. “As soon as you go to camp, you just remember everybody.”

McKenna Ross is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Contact her at mross@reviewjournal.com. Follow @mckenna_ross_ on Twitter.

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