Camp gives cancer survivor kids chance to remember friends

The crowd at the Evening of Hope gathered around the stage to applaud the young people chosen for special recognition by Candlelighters Childhood Cancer Foundation of Nevada.

The cancer survivor kids and their parents were warmly received, but when it was Mayra Altamirano’s turn to take the stage there was a brief pause in the ceremony. After a few moments, a Skype broadcast linking a Summerlin Hospital room to the Keep Memory Alive Events Center clicked on.

Mayra’s beautiful face beamed as she graciously thanked everyone for attending the April fundraiser, which in part helps pay for a summer camp for the children. Although Mayra’s immune system was too weakened by leukemia to attend the Evening of Hope, she wanted everyone to know that she hadn’t lost her hope. She was a fighter with an angelic face.

At a time she would have been more than justified in turning inward and focusing on her illness, she managed to set aside her pain and smile. That was Mayra: a smart, funny, beautiful and polite young lady.

Though moved by her message, all I could think of is how she looked like she was broadcasting from the front lines of some distant war.

That’s the awful truth about childhood cancer. The war isn’t on foreign soil. It’s right down the street. Or, in some cases, right in your own home.

■ ■ ■

July is camp month for hundreds of brave local cancer-survivor kids. It’s hard to explain in words the level of anticipation the young people have for their annual trip to local developer-philanthropist Brett Torino’s amazing ranch in Lovell Canyon. Sponsored by Candlelighters, the Nevada Childhood Cancer Foundation and other worthy nonprofit organizations, the camps last a few days, but each waking minute is filled with games and crafts, songs and entertainment. The youthful laughter echoes through the pine-scented mountain oasis. The joy is genuine.

My own brave daughter Amelia, now 16, looks forward to those camps each summer. For her, camps Firefly and Cartwheel represent great times and the chance to renew friendships with other young people who can appreciate her long journey because they have been there, too.

The lesson cancer teaches us is that every day is precious, and time is all we have. It’s something those kids know all about.

■ ■ ■

Last Saturday afternoon, with the July sky a brilliant blue, family and friends gathered at Palm Mortuary on Main Street to celebrate the life of Mayra Altamirano, who battled her cancer with uncommon courage. She was 20.

When Mayra was well enough, she volunteered at Candlelighters. She helped coordinate a bone marrow drive that no doubt will help save other lives. She loved working with the children, and taught them by example to keep fighting the good fight for life.

During her long hospital stays, the nurses noticed that the other kids with cancer preferred Mayra’s room to the official playroom. They not only enjoyed her company, but no doubt they were comforted by her courageous spirit.

After Saturday’s service, celebrants wrote messages of hope and love on purple and orange balloons and set them loose. When last seen, some were floating in the direction of Torino Ranch.

Mayra had remarkable talents. She was a singer, a songwriter and a poet. Shortly before Saturday’s service, Mayra’s children’s book, “Kid Superheroes,” arrived from the publisher. Candlelighters Executive Director Melissa Cipriano read it to the assembly. As you might have guessed, it was a message of inspiration to those kids with cancer.

And it came just in time for camp.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.

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