Kids cancer camp loses funding, seeks ways to stay afloat

VASHON ISLAND, Wash. -- The future of a Puget Sound summer camp for children with cancer is in jeopardy after the camp's sole sponsor pulled its funding.

Hundreds of child cancer patients, survivors, and their siblings attend Camp Goodtimes on Vashon Island each summer, free of charge. The camp has been around for 30 years, but staff were told in 2013 they'd no longer receive funding from the American Cancer Society, which covered the $400,000 cost each year.

"It was pretty stunning news for everyone. For the first time ever, we were at risk of not having camp anymore," said executive director Carol Mastenbrook. "We couldn't let this precious, precious service to children and families go."

More than 200 kids attend week-long camp sessions on Vashon Island each summer, Mastenbrook said, with a third camp taking place in the San Juan Islands for older kids. Campers build campfires, sing songs, and play sports, among other things.

"They leave the hospitals behind and they get to go into an environment where they just get to be kids for a week," Mastenbrook added. "It's really wondrous."

The camp has provided a much-needed break for 10-year old Connor Dunham, a cancer survivor from Mukilteo, his mother said. Dunham survived leukemia as a toddler, but remains on medication after a bone marrow transplant at the age of 2.

"At camp, he's normal. He isn't the smallest, and everybody just accepts him for exactly the way that he is," said Dunham's mother, Alicia. "The courage he gets carries him throughout the entire year. It gives him a self-worth that you can see."

"You get a week with no doctors and no medicines or anything," Connor added. "It's awesome."

Camp leaders found out in 2013 that they'd no longer receive funding for the following year. The American Cancer society made a "difficult decision" to shift resources from children's camps to research and public policy programs, said Kimberly Dinsdale, a media relations manager for the organization.

The staff at Goodtimes has formed a 501c3 to raise the $400,000 needed to put on this year's camp, Mastenbrook said. Beyond that, the future of the program is unknown.

The group is looking for major donors or a corporate sponsor to help offset the cost into next year and beyond, she said.

"They didn't pull the funding for other things in the adult spectrum, but they pulled a lot of the funding for many of their kids' programs," Dunham said. "It was sad to think that wasn't a priority for them. It made me feel like my child wasn't important."

"For some of these kids, this is their last chance to be normal. Some kids don't make it to next year's camp," added Dunham. "It's very important that these kids have a few days where they get to be like any other kid."