By Kris Riley (a.k.a., “The Pop Top Lady” or “Matt’s Mom”.
My son, Matt, is a cancer survivor. He was diagnosed in December 1997 with Grade 4 Brain Cancer at the age of 12. He had 10 hours of brain surgery, 6 weeks of whole brain/spinal radiation and 18 months of chemotherapy. He will be a 24-year survivor next month and has lived 2/3 of his life as a cancer survivor.
After diagnosis, Matt’s Oncologist and Social Worker encouraged Matt to go to summer cancer camp - Camp One Step run by Children’s Oncology Services. I thought they were crazy to think I would send my child who was on active treatment to a camp 2 hours away from me! But Matt knew better and wanted to go so reluctantly I sent my bald, skinny, neutropenic cancer kid to camp. Matt had a great time and came home a different child. He found that he could still be a child and do the things children do at a summer camp and not be “different”. They even had medical staff at camp so during the week when Matt needed to get a platelet transfusion, they took him to his hospital, sat with him while he got his transfusion and brought him back to camp as if nothing had ever happened. Matt fared better that week than I did.
Matt continued to go to camp and have wonderful experiences and when he aged out as a camper, he found his niche running their AV Program at summer camp/winter camp programs and also is a counselor for the Brain Tumor Family Camp. I became involved with the camp the next year and have served as a volunteer counselor, program leader and medical staff. The reason I became involved was because camp gave my child his childhood back when I couldn’t figure out how to do that, so now I am giving back to other families who are walking our walk.
Camp One Step provides 11 programs throughout the year. Families are not charged to participate. Our programs include a Utah Ski Trip where kids learn to ski through the National Abilities Center. They are able to teach kids to ski who are visually impaired/blind, have amputations, balance issues and other challenges due to their cancer diagnosis. We have a Chicago Day Camp for ages 5-10, a Washington DC Advocacy Trip, a Brain Tumor Family Camp and regular Family Camp for the entire family to participate in, a Sibling camp, a 2-week Summer camp, a Dude Ranch Trip, a Utah Adventure Trip where the kids go rafting, hiking and biking in Utah and a 5 day Winter Camp. They also offer a Seabees program which is for former campers who are now adults and because of effects from their cancer/treatment they are unable to be counselors but can still contribute to camp by running activities for the younger campers and they also learn life skills in the program. Camp is inclusive, if a camper has special needs/disabilities; activities are modified so everyone can participate. Camp is family!
Photo Above: This group leader let campers cut her hair!
So how does one run camp in the middle of a pandemic?? We ran virtual camps for all our programs. Each child would receive a box with everything they would need for the activities and then we would get together over Zoom and do the activities together. Even though this was not the same as being in person, the kids could see each other over Zoom. This summer we did run 2-3 day in person camp sessions for the campers. We had approximately 85 kids each session. We were able to pull off a Covid free camp! Everyone tested negative before and after camp. Camp was different, we had to wear masks, social distance, stay in our small pods and there weren’t any hugs but it was so great to be together again. We had a Winter Camp in person in December with the same precautions but the kids don’t mind because they can at least be with their friends.
Pop Top Lady??? MOA teamed up with Matt and I in collecting soda tabs for camp in 2003 and we have been collecting tabs ever since. We take the tabs to the recycling center and the money from the collections has been used for various things for camp. Some years we have just made a direct donation to camp and other years we have used the money to buy things for the different programs. We have purchased large print playing cards and UNO cards so the kids with visual impairments can participate, we purchased a bin full of board games for some of the programs so that on rainy days we can play games together. The money from our most recent collection of tabs will be used to buy a jumbo Connect 4 game so kids with mobility/dexterity issues or visual issues can play.
So how many tabs have we collected over the years???? 14,867 pounds-that is almost 7 ½ tons of tabs!!!! There are approximately 1267 pop tabs in a pound so we have collected 18,836,489 tabs. Thank you to everyone who has collected tabs for us over the years to help support this wonderful camp that changes the lives of kids with cancer and gives them back their childhood.
Matt’s Mom Kris Riley