Saturday, Aug. 1, 2009 | 2:05 a.m.
When a Metro Police officer spent his vacation as a counselor at Camp Cartwheel one year, Jeff Gordon, president and CEO of the Nevada Childhood Cancer Foundation, was curious to know why.
“I said, ‘With all the things you could be doing with your time off, how come you’re coming here?’” Gordon recalled. “And what he said to me next I have never forgotten. He said, ‘I come to Camp Cartwheel to wash the mud from my soul.’”
In its 13th year, Camp Cartwheel is an outdoor, four-day program for critically ill children and their siblings between the ages of 5 and 17.
It is designed to give them a carefree experience, spending days by the lake swimming or canoeing, playing games, doing arts and crafts and making new friends. The camp is located at Torino Ranch in Lovell Canyon.
The program is funded through the NCCF, a nonprofit organization that serves to work with the medical community to provide all manners of support to families whose children have been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. All of its programs, including the camp, are provided free of charge.
“It is a magical week where we can bring some normalcy to the kids’ lives and be able to let them experience things that, in some cases, none of these kids will ever be able to experience,” Gordon said. “It gives them an opportunity to be away from the clinics and the hospitals and everything and just be kids.”
Gordon said the camp has 130 children in attendance and more than 200 volunteers.
At first glance, Camp Cartwheel isn’t different than any other summer camp. Campers and counselors run amok with water guns. Lifeguards watch over the lake. Kids laugh and scream and chase.
There are tie-dyed T-shirts and handcrafted necklaces and strawberry-banana smoothies. Everything can be made into a game. This year’s theme is Harry Potter.
This is Celine Cruz’s first year as a counselor.
Her younger sister, Valerie, was diagnosed with brain cancer in September 2007. Celine Cruz said the doctors found a tumor the size of an orange. The next day, her sister had brain surgery, she said, and then began chemotherapy and radiation every day for several months.
Celine Cruz, who is a patrol officer with Metro, said Valerie is free of cancer but still receives chemotherapy. She said before her sister became ill, they were just sisters. But now, Celine Cruz said, she can’t be without her.
“Every time I see her, I say, ‘I love you,’ and I give her a hug and a kiss,” she said. “Love your family; love your friends; take every second to say I love you, take every second to say what you have to say or do. You never know when it’s going to be the end.”
Gordon recounted a story of a young girl who was sick with cancer and could barely walk. He said she sat watching as the other kids climbed a rock wall and hit the buzzer at the top. Gordon said the girl leaned over to her counselor and said, “I guess I’ll never be able to do that.”
Shortly after, the counselors put together a special harness, he said, and pulled her up to the top. Gordon said the girl used her arms to help crawl up the wall and “really believed in her heart that she was climbing herself.”
Gordon wiped his eyes behind his sunglasses.
“I get a little emotional because she started crying, and it was something we take for granted because, sure, we can climb that rock wall,” he said. “But she got up there and had conquered the world in her mind.”
That is perhaps the most important part of Camp Cartwheel — the confidence and positivity it can provide for the kids who need it, Gordon said.
“We need to help them believe they can conquer anything,” he said.