By Shawn McGowan, JobsInRI.com
Celebrating 10 years of connecting Vermont job seekers and employers, JobsInVT.com recently selected our fifth and final Live Work Give contest winners, who each selected a nonprofit to receive a $1,000 donation, in their name, from JobsInVT.com. One of the Live Work Give contest winners was Suzanne Pellerin, who chose Camp Ta-Kum-Ta of South Hero, Vermont. I recently caught up with Camp Ta-Kum-Ta executive director, Ted Kessler, to learn more about this organization that makes such a difference in the lives of children with cancer.
What is Camp Ta-Kum-Ta's mission?
Ted Kessler, Camp Ta-Kum-Ta: Camp Ta-Kum-Ta provides challenging, extraordinary experiences in a safe and loving environment for children who have or have had cancer and their families. Camp exists for Vermont and Northern New York children, (including other out-of-state children who are treated in Vermont), between the ages of 7 to 17, at no cost to their families.
How important is it for children with cancer have a place like Camp Ta-Kum-Ta to "just be kids"?
TK: It would be difficult if not impossible for children on therapy to attend other summer camps. Our medical staff provides them with their chemotherapy, at camp, and watches them closely. When I child is on treatment, their health can change in a moment's notice. Medical professionals are watching and testing and following up continually.
For example, my son was treated for 8 1/2 years with 10 months in between off therapy. He was in and out of the hospital, low blood counts, etc. It wasn't safe for him to be away at just any camp, he needed to be monitored. Most of his childhood was spent isolated. He never learned to swim as his blood counts were safe to have him in a public pool. Chicken pox is a threat to children on therapy so we needed to monitor his interactions with other children. Sometimes it was necessary for him to be out of school for months at a time. Just being with other children who were experiencing the same issues - baldness, chemo, being pale, always sick - is helpful and encouraging for the child. Some of our staff were campers here that did well with their illness and became staff members! Young children gain hope from seeing that some people do survive and go onto live "normal" lives.
The Camp operates year round, so what's the winter camp program like?
TK: With the purchase of our own property, we now offer year-round programs, not just summer camp as we did for 24 years. We plan 3 winter camps, siblings program, Mother's Retreat, future camper program, a reunion, Halloween gathering and Christmas party. The winter programs are planned by age. Some of our volunteer staff assists with the planning and staff these winter sessions. The children play games, we have an enormous ice skating rink, we hold late night hikes (with pranks along the way), they make projects in arts and crafts, we may have a movie night with all the fixings, often there are guest entertainers too.
Can you tell us about how the Camp got started?
TK: Camp held its first session in 1984. Many oncology camps exist throughout the country but there was nothing in Vermont for children with cancer. Vermont children were invited to attend Camp Good Days and Special Times in Rochester, New York. A representative from this camp offered a presentation at the hospital for families who had children experiencing this disease. We attended and like the idea and sent our son to this camp, only one other family registered their child. We heard comments like "It's so far away, "and "We don't know this program or the staff who manage the camp."
After our son attended we saw a different child, he just couldn't stop talking about all the kids he met and the activities. We were then invited to attend a parent program at Camp Good Days and were very impressed. Fletcher Allen Hospital was interested in discussing the feasibility of Vermont having an oncology camp so children on therapy wouldn't miss out on summer camping programs that other children were able to attend. We formed a Board of Directors with help from the Medical Center and so it began, that was 30 years ago this year.
How much of your workforce is volunteers?
TK: Camp Ta-Kum-Ta operated for many years with an entirely volunteer staff. As we expanded and made the purchase of our camp, it was clear that we must raise additional funds to support the facility and organize the additional programs we had in mind for the families. The Board of Directors made the decision to now have a full time Executive Director and Development Director with one administrative support person.
When camp is in session we select approximately 90 volunteer staff and with each smaller program we operate, volunteer staff are still selected to support the plans we have for the families. We never have an issue with finding volunteer staff; we actually have more staff apply than we have a need for. Many of our former campers, now grown, volunteer their time to give back to camp as staff members. All staff must fill out an application, have a face to face interview and we then conduct a background check. We hold a staff training session six to eight weeks before summer camp begins. The same process applies to volunteers interested in volunteering for our other programs.
Are there any milestones that Camp Ta-Kum-Ta is especially proud of?
TK: We are especially proud that after many years we still continue to grow from a one week camp to offer year round programs that support not only the child with cancer but their entire family. We operated for years with only volunteers and invested our funds carefully so that when the time was right, we could purchase our own facility and expand our programs. We saw that the entire family suffered in different ways when one child in the family was diagnosed with cancer, we wanted to reach out and help the family members where we could but we had no ability to hold additional programs without a facility.
Are there any upcoming events or fundraisers you could tell us about?
TK: We operate fundraising events throughout the year with the assistance from volunteers. We also have people come to us with fundraising ideas that they want to pursue to help support Camp Ta-Kum-Ta. One such event is the Super Bingo that the South Burlington Knights of Columbus have held for over 20 years. The Knights rent the ballroom at the Sheraton Hotel and hold a one day event that each year sells out completely.
Another fundraising opportunity for us is the KOOL 105 Ta-Kum-Ta Thon that takes place the week before Christmas each year. This is a one week event held each morning from 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. Individuals and companies call in pledges for Camp TKT, some pledges are made in honor of a family member, in memory of our campers and the donor family members etc. Hall Communications generously offer the airwaves for the benefit of Ta-Kum-Ta. An event that our campers and volunteer staff are looking forward to is our 30th Anniversary GALA to be held this May. To think that we'll celebrate such a milestone makes us very proud. Hen House Media is producing a video, as a donation, that will tell the story of Camp TKT. Campers and staff will speak and share with the attendees what Camp Ta-Kum-Ta has meant to them. We'll dress in our best and enjoy a fabulous meal and dance the evening away. We are also organizing a weekend camp session at our camp home in South Hero to celebrate our anniversary. Families will camp out, enjoy a barbecue, singing by the campfire and dancing to the early morning hours.
If you would like to, please contribute to Camp Ta-Kum-Ta.
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As a Social Media Marketing Coordinator, Shawn McGowan's passion for brand transparency and over 10 years of sales/customer service experience make him aptly suited for the job. A native of East Millinocket, Maine, Shawn grew up at the foot of Mount Katahdin and graduated from the University of Maine Presque Isle with a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA). When not writing, editing or immersing himself in the world of social media, he can be found enjoying the outdoors, art, music, tech, humor, Portland's amazing food scene, and all things nerdy. You can reach Shawn at smcgowan (at) JobsInRI.com and Twitter.com/shonymac.