A Chance ‘To Forget’

07/02/2009 – Daily News Record

Cancer Furthest Thing From Campers’ Minds

Written By Heather Bowser Daily News Record

Jack Gordon, 11, of Mount Sidney, runs onto the field Wednesday evening before the Harrisonburg Turks game with the Rockbridge Rapids. Gordon, with the honorary Camp Unali team, threw out the first pitch of the game.

Photos by Nikki Fox

BRETHREN WOODS – The scene at Brethren Woods on Wednesday morning looked nothing out of the ordinary.

About a dozen kids took turns lining up in front of hay bales, shooting arrows at white targets. They took pictures, gossiped and goofed around. Earlier in the week, they played water games and cooked a meal over a campfire. And later that evening they would drive into Harrisonburg to watch the Valley Baseball League’s hometown Turks take on the Rockbridge Rapids.

The normalcy was exactly what the summer camp strives for.

“We don’t want it to feel like a cancer camp,” said Brandi Overstreet, a camp counselor. “It’s a chance to get away, to forget about their cancer and do typical camp stuff.”

Held annually at Brethren Woods near Keezletown, Camp Unali is a weeklong free camp for cancer patients and survivors age 6 to 16 and their friends. Unali is a Cherokee word that means “friends.”

A James Madison University graduate, Jason Smith, now 31, of Culpeper, founded the camp five years ago in memory of his father, who died from lymphoma.

The nonprofit camp is still going strong, despite the economic downturn, Smith said. He acknowledged, though, that the camp’s finances haven’t been entirely spared by the recession. It costs organizers about $600 per child to run the camp.

“Things have been a little tough, but we managed,” Smith said. “We get a lot of help from donors. It’s all about getting the word out.”

This year, about a dozen campers enjoyed hiking through the surrounding forest, swimming, archery and other traditional camp activities.

George Reid, 12, of Broadway, who had cancer when he was 5, loves capture the flag and a dodge ball type game they call “gaga ball.” His twin brother, David, who did not have cancer, comes with him.

“The food fight is the best,” said Camden Jarvis, a 12-year-old from Waynesboro who has recovered from a form of leukemia. “No one wins that thing. It’s all-out war.”

A fellow camper agreed.

“I got mashed potatoes in my ear,” said Jennifer Koogler, 14, of Harrisonburg. “It’s really fun.”

Contact Heather Bowser at 574-6218 or hbowser@dnronline.com