Updated 

Despite illness, young campers teach adults how to live


BIG BEAR, Calif.

Dear Boss,

I write this message from behind the lines at the YMCA’s Camp Whittle, the site of this year’s Camp Independent Firefly.

Don’t let that name fool you. This is a very dangerous assignment. I suspect I am onto the story of my life.

The camp celebrates the summer convergence of Candlelighters Childhood Cancer Foundation of Nevada and the Nevada Chapter of the National Hemophilia Foundation. Together, the groups brought 150 Nevada kids to an incredible location amid the big pines and granite boulders above Big Bear Lake. Many of these young people have been through cancer treatment, and many others are learning to live with hemophilia. Some of their siblings are with them, too.

Candlelighters (candle lightersnv.org) supports families of children with childhood cancer, my own daughter, Amelia, among many dozens from Southern Nevada. The Hemophilia Ffoundation (hfn.org) is a statewide nonprofit that helps families of children with genetic bleeding disorders. Camp Independent Firefly is the highlight of the summer and the culmination of 10 months of planning.

Sounds pretty idyllic, right? Don’t kid yourself.

Sure, there’s horseback riding, rope wall climbing, zip-lining, swimming, boating, archery, arts and crafts, marshmallow roasts, daily water fights and morning and evening singalongs, but those activities only mask the revolution that’s going on behind the scenes. There’s something very different about these youngsters, Boss.

Although many of the kids go to the med-shed daily to take pills, injections and infusions, there appear to be no sick children here. I have scoured the landscape and haven’t found a single one. The young people are so energetic, in fact, their army of volunteer counselors has difficulty keeping pace.

As if that weren’t weird enough, the campers and their counselors speak in code. Everyone goes by a nickname. It’s all very suspicious. My own daughter answers to “Cookie.” On the radio just this morning I heard someone say, “Shake-and-Bake to Rock Lobster, come in Rock Lobster.”

As part of my undercover role, I am disguised as a member of the utility team and hang out with veterans Happy Man, the self-same Rock Lobster, C.C., Pepe and Harry. I chauffeur campers and counselors around the enormous property in a stretch golf cart. Playing a caddie to kids easily exceeds my counseling skill level.

The choreographed chaos makes identifying the leaders of this revolution difficult, but it appears Melissa “Mimi” Cipriano of Candlelighters and Kelli “Doc” Walters of the Hemophilia Foundation are the big enchiladas. Las Vegas pediatric oncologist Jonathan “Dr. B” Bernstein is the physician in residence.

“Kids go through so many medical circumstances that they shouldn’t have to go through,” Cipriano says, watching children take a zip line through the forest. “Camp is a time where kids can just be kids and forget about all their illnesses and issues at home. Camp Independent Firefly is an oasis for them to just be a kid. They can experience new things, make new friends and just live life as kids should be.”

And the counselors and volunteers, Walters says, are reminded of the important things in life.

“Children, much more than adults, are just so honest and open,” Walters says. “They share their experiences. They’re friendly, supportive and empathetic of each other, regardless of what each child’s situation is.”

The campers are not above pulling pranks, though, such as when Cookie enlisted veteran utility team members to color a rookie driver’s hair pink and slap some temporary tattoos on his face. I’m just glad they didn’t nickname me “Pinky.”

In conclusion, Boss, I think I have uncovered a training camp for a new generation of superkids. They refuse to let life-threatening diseases and disorders steal their happiness. They experience genuine joy, and they have learned to live in the moment.

They do not mope. They smile and hope.

Although they sometimes get tired, they never quit.

Not so their counselors. In three days I’ve managed to bruise a rib and twist a knee. When I get home I’ll sleep for a week.

I must close for now, Boss. This revolution has a curfew.

P.S.: Despite the obvious dangers of this assignment, I would like to volunteer for next year’s camp.

I should be fully recovered by then.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295.