As I drove south to Keuka Lake from my home in Rochester one late July morning, I had over an hour just to think. This would be my second trip to Camp Good Days and Special Times, where children with cancer go for a week in summer to get away from the obviously dispiriting environments of hospitals and doctor's offices in their fight against cancer. A place where they fight the loneliness of cancer, loneliness because kids with cancer feel like they just don't fit in with the regular world anymore.
My first trip was only weeks earlier when Billy Lang, his video production crew, and myself went down to scout the location for a pro bono film we were producing for Camp Good Days. At first glance, it was a sublime location on a lake. A real camp on a lake with cabins and basketball courts and a pool and boats and arts and crafts and everything a camp should be. But without the kids, it didn't...couldn't...inspire us as it was about to this day,
In my thoughts I wondered if the dozen or so people I contacted to appear in the film would be the right choices...how I would feel surrounded by dozens of kids with cancer. If our film crew would get outstanding shots. And if I would be successful in interviewing the campers, counselors, volunteers and Camp Good Days staff. I've been involved in many shoots through the years, but the anticipation is always the same – is this production going to click? My bigger concern: was I emotionally ready to dive in and do this? I believe I am like most people who have heard of Camp Good Days; we think we know what it's all about, but mostly we think how sad a place it must be. After all, cancer is frightening, baffling, and, sometimes hopeless. And it seems even worse when children get it.
I drove through Penn Yan and on to Branchport, a hamlet on the north shores of Keuka Lake where the camp is located, keeping my eye on a roiling sky. The past few weeks had been unusually stormy and there were more threats of scattered cloudbursts throughout the area. I knew there were plenty of shelters from which to shoot, but a rainless shoot day would be far easier for the crew and the cast. I was soon rolling through the camp and ended up right by the shore near the docks. The sky was gray but for now, quiet, contrasted by the thunderous hubbub of many young voices shouting and laughing echoing through the trees.
I was met by Wendy Mervis, Camp Director and wife of Gary Mervis who is the founder of Camp Good Days. Gary built all of this in memory of his daughter Teddi who some 35 years ago was taken by cancer and for whom he would make this camp her legacy. Wendy, an athletic younger woman with piercing blue eyes, married Gary some 25 years ago and with her many credentials easily became the director of the camp. Emerging from the Mervis' cottage on the water (perhaps the only real perk of the job, she says) she immediately gave the crew a mi casa su casa hug. And though I had an expectation of interviewing some 12 people that day, she announced that they had lined up more than 25 for us. Twenty-five! A long day ahead.
We set up lights and booms and cameras right on the deck of the cottage using Keuka Lake as the backdrop to begin the interviewing process. Meanwhile, another camera crew set off to wander through the camp to shoot B-roll – random footage of kids running and jumping and climbing rope and playing soccer and tumbling and swimming (we even got some underwater shots), all to capture the indefatigable energy of a summer day pervaded by kids.
Over the next 12 hours, the crew and I got the education of our lives.
Most illuminating were the scenes with each kid chosen to speak. Though I asked my leading questions as an interviewer is supposed to do, I hardly had to.
First came Jordan, a 9-year old boy who matter of factly informed me he had Hodgkin Disease (malignant cells in the lymphatic tissue). Then, with a smile on his face and a dog in his lap, he boasted quite proudly that he had already made himself some girlfriends at camp this week, both campers and counselors! My immediate impression: this kid doesn't look sick. And he sure seems happy.
Next came Ellie, an adorable 7-year old girl who told me she had cancer and may lose her vision as a result. But her prevailing attitude was, 'If that happens so be it', and if so she would 'just move on.' She giggled and bounced around like any kid, and she gushed about how awesome her Camp Good Days experience was...how cute one camper named Mitchell was...and how it was her first time here and hoped she could come back again and again.
There was Vaunce, an 11-year old from the Bahamas, whose parents put him on a plane and sent him up here despite his Leukemia, and who was happier today than he can remember
In all these cases, one would ask, how is this possible? How can kids with cancer be so happy? Where were the depressed droves of children looking down and acting blue that we all expected?
As more kids, and then counselors, and then volunteers, and then staff members told their tales in front of the camera, it became obvious: Camp Good Days and Special Times isn't just good, isn't just special.
It's magical. It's not a contrived, corporate gung-ho, let's put on a brave face charade. It is, instead, the essence of courage. Courage that means 'I'm ready and determined to face life, and nothing less.'
We learned that a kid coming into camp for the first time on a Monday – nervous, shy, clueless as what to expect, already missing the parents – was diametrically opposite on Friday afternoon at time of departure. By then, no kid wants to leave. He or she has made dozens of friends who they'll never forget. They have new spirit...new hope...and new courage.
Here are people who 'have been there.' Sure, families and friends back home do their best to understand, but the fact is, they don't understand at all like people who have or have had cancer.
Whoever the kids talk to, whether it's another camper or a counselor, there's no B.S. 'Yeah, I know how you feel' is honestly said, because it's true.
Within a couple of days, the few kids who enter the camp wearing wigs to hide the effects of treatment shed them. They're with real people now. They don't have to hide. They are free, they are happy, they are relieved.
In our interview with Gary Mervis himself, we started with one question: 'Gary, how did all of this begin?' Twenty-five minutes later he completed his first answer...a story that began with his daughter Teddi and ended up today as he sat among another group of campers, the next edition to the some 70,000 kids who have called Camp Good Days 'their special place.'
Where did all this happiness, this relief come from? With no small amount of credit, the counselors and staff at these campers' sides took their cues from Gary and became true believers in the magic around us. Whether they are survivors themselves or just those who like to help, they all broadcast an esprit that resonates with everyone within shouting distance.
Camp Good Days and Special Times is a place for life.
It's also a place for a lifetime.
Nearly everyone we talked to told us they cannot imagine not coming back to this camp one way or another. Whether as a continuing camper, or later on as a counselor, or even the guy who CPA's the camp's books or the woman who's spent her last 30 years there as a nurse...none can imagine life without Camp Good Days.
That night, I drove back to Rochester in a driving rain, a rain that by some providence missed the camp all day. Having to travel a little more slowly gave me time to digest the enormity of the day; the realization that many of my initial impressions of Camp Good Days were wrong. That it wasn't just a week at camp. It's something that everyone carries in their heart forever.
Then, came a daunting thought: Could we really convey these realizations through the movie we'd just shot and now needed to edit? The movie, when completed, would be shown on the major Rochester broadcast television stations as a 30-minute salute to Camp Good Days.
I began the script some months before and had what I thought was a wonderful outline for a well-crafted movie. That script met the Trash icon. I now knew the realities. It was time to rewrite from scratch.
In making this movie, if we did nothing else, it was to share the truth, the wonderful, hopeful, human, high definition truth about Camp Good Days and Special Times, and, how you will never really feel its magic until you, in any way you can, experience it yourself. If you care to see the results of this day, see the program itself at https://vimeo.com/167118303.
© 2017 Mad Duck - 3/4/17