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Volunteering for Kids With Cancer Has Changed Their Lives (and Mine)

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From a young age, I always enjoyed working with children. Kids are full of positivity and never-ending surprises, and there’s something so gratifying about witnessing, or playing a role in, their personal growth. So, when a college friend presented me with the unique opportunity to volunteer at a pediatric oncology camp called Camp Ronald McDonald for Good Times, aka Camp, I jumped at the chance.

The rest, as they say, is history, and my life has never been the same.

My own life had already been touched by cancer: My father and a few friends have been diagnosed, and my grandfather unfortunately passed from this awful disease. As a result, I had a natural affinity for Camp. For cancer to enter a child’s life and deprive them of their youth is horrifically absurd, and if there were an opportunity to alleviate this pain through “fun” and “smiles,” I was 100 percent committed to that cause.

Being involved with Camp means the world to me. The gratification I receive from improving lives and creating joy (even if it’s a temporary reprieve from the harsh reality of cancer) is priceless.

Personally, Camp helps me put life in perspective and appreciate the little things — from being able to walk to even being able to breathe. Volunteering at Camp is the opposite of a relaxing vacation, but I return more mentally refreshed than I would have on an actual trip! Every summer, I take one full week off from work and volunteer at this enchanted place.

There is nowhere I would rather be.

Scott Cohen at camp

My passion for this organization is limitless. I’ve seen it change lives firsthand. I’ve seen sick kids arrive shy, self-conscious and lacking confidence, who leave a week later with an abundance of self-confidence and comfort in their own skin. In a metaphoric way, Camp is a cocoon — it wraps each camper in an unbelievably supportive net, transforming cancer patients back into the children they were meant to be.

I could fill a book with the powerful and impactful moments I’ve witnessed over the last 11 years, but my favorite example is from about six years ago. My cabin of 12 9-year-olds was relaxing before bedtime when a conversation began about each other’s scars. Out of left field, one boy shared his surgical scar was seven inches long. Immediately, the cabin responded with a synchronized “Wow.”

A second boy responded and said, “Well, mine is 12 inches long!” Again, a perfectly timed “Wow,” but this time, louder.

Finally, a third boy, who was typically quiet and reserved, stood and exclaimed, “Oh yeah… mine is over 17 inches long — check this out!” This elevated him to instant superstar status.

Where else in the world can a group of children affected by cancer — many of whom have missed out on invaluable childhood experiences during their treatment — live together under one roof for a full week and be comfortable enough to share their personal battle scars? I didn’t do anything to facilitate this conversation, but impactful, natural moments like this happen all the time as a result of the safe atmosphere we create at Camp.

These kids demonstrate unbelievable resiliency and strength, made all the more impressive by their positivity. No child should have to fight cancer, but much work remains — only four percent of the National Institute of Health’s cancer research budget is dedicated to funding for childhood cancer, and more than 10,000 children were projected to be diagnosed in 2017.

I’m honored to do my part and bring awareness to the cause when I join patients and other adult champions on Northwestern Mutual’s Rose Parade float come New Year’s Day. The float, “Letting Kids Be Kids,” is entirely dedicated to camp experiences like ours, and making this experience even more special is that I’ll be sharing it with one of my unbelievable campers, Chris.

Chris at pediatric cancer camp

I met Chris in 2011 during his first session at Camp. We formed an instant bond and remain close; it’s been a privilege to watch him transform from a young camper into a mature high school senior on the brink of college.

Children affected by this horrible disease are superstars and the ultimate heroes. They have dealt with more adversity in just a few short years than most people experience in a lifetime. The positivity I’ve seen them show is mind-boggling, and the physical endurance they have to display during their treatment phase is second to none. They are total inspirations to us all and serve as powerful reminders that more awareness and funding for pediatric oncology treatments are needed.

Scott Cohen and Chris

Northwestern Mutual and its Childhood Cancer Program have stepped up to the plate in a big way, contributing more than $17 million and funding over 200,000 hours of research. But we need more companies and individuals to do the same.

While I’m utterly appreciative for this upcoming experience with Chris, I want our relationship to be symbolic of the thousands of other unique camper/counselor relationships across this country. While our friendship probably contains more burrito-eating, guitar-playing and goofy jokes than most, each relationship is special in its own way and is equally as deserving of acknowledgement.

Scott Cohen and Chris at camp

I’m just one small fish in the sea of adult champions working with pediatric oncology camps. There is so much good waiting to be discovered in this world — we just need to uncover it.

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Originally published: December 19, 2017
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