CROSSLAKE, Minn. — Camp Knutson on the Whitefish Chain has long served campers with disabilities, but recently it catered to a new group with Camp Norden, a four-day camp for children affected by cancer.
Camp Norden gets its name from the German word meaning “north.”
“To us, ‘north’ really represents adventure,” Camp Norden Director Sam Bingea said. “It represents a journey and community. We want this camp to be that kind of guiding light or that north star in these campers’ lives. We want them to look forward to camp, and we want it to be the best week of their year.”
The camp opened its doors to 22 campers between the ages of 8 and 17 beginning Wednesday, Aug. 4. It was made possible by one of Camp Knutson’s 11 partnerships with nonprofit organizations, allowing those organizations to host various camps for youths with various afflictions at the Camp Knutson site with their staff on hand.
“We combine (with the nonprofits) to be this force of goodness for these kids to create this worry-free camp experience where these kids are finally able to do everything that every other kid that goes to camp is able to do,” Camp Knutson Senior Director Jared Griffin said. “They get to make those lifelong friendships and memories with other kids that have been through similar challenges.”
Though these campers have faced many challenges, Camp Norden aims to provide them with some sense of normalcy, allowing them to partake in a number of classic summer camp activities like kayaking, tubing, horseback riding, archery and simply enjoying the company of others around a campfire.
"To us, 'north' really represents adventure. It represents a journey and community. We want this camp to be that kind of guiding light or that north star in these campers’ lives. We want them to look forward to camp, and we want it to be the best week of their year."
— Camp Norden Director, Sam Bingea
“I think for a lot of our campers, something that's really lacking in their lives is having a community outside of the clinic that really fulfills their needs and allows them to get to know other kids who have gone through similar things that they have,” Bingea said. “A camp experience is a really unique way for them to get to know their kids. It’s a place where campers can just share their stories with their peers. A lot of these kids might not have ever met another kid who has cancer or who has a similar scar as one they have … We have even seen some campers comparing their port scars, which is really cool.”
Not only does the camp provide fun and normalcy for these kids, it also celebrates them and lets them be remembered while making memories of their own.
“The kids that come to camp are oftentimes on the fringes of society — they are kind of on the outside of the circle,” Griffin said. “When they come to camp, they become the center of the circle. We are able to fully celebrate their lives while they are here. They get to have an experience that maybe wouldn’t be able to happen for them somewhere else.”
With a camp full of immunocompromised children — during a health crisis, no less — officials with Camp Norden have had to take extra precautions to maintain the health and well-being of campers.
“The real priority is our campers’ safety — making sure that they can have all the fun to be had at a great site like this, but ensure that they do so in a safe manner specific to their health history and current health condition,” said Dr. Karim Thomas Sadak, medical director for Camp Norden. “We have the opportunity to personalize safety specific to the needs and issues of each child. For each camper, we were able to figure out what their medical needs were before they got here.”
The benefits of the camp seem to be two-fold for Mindy Dykes, community outreach coordinator for the Children’s Cancer Research Fund. She is not only one of the individuals spearheading Camp Norden, but she is also a parent of one of the campers.
"We see cancer take away so much from our patients and their families. This is a chance to put joy back into their lives. We see it all throughout the day at Camp Norden, in all these different activities. To personally see our patients, who have suffered so much, have so much joy is really amazing."
— Camp Norden medical director, Dr. Karim Thomas Sadak
“To be able to have an environment where (the children) are completely able to be amongst each other, and seeing parents unexpectedly getting connected to the nurse that is assigned to their group — that was a really cool moment to see that ease of mind,” Dykes said.
Camp has also provided Dykes and the other parents of campers a brief time to be a bit more hands-off, which is difficult to find with a health-compromised child.
“The responsibility with a medically fragile child as a parent is great,” Dykes said. “You have these things that just have to be the certain way, and everything can be followed to a tee, just like if they were at home, but they get to be amongst their peers.”
Perhaps the camp's biggest draw for the campers is the opportunity to talk openly about their challenges with new friends, friends who can understand each other’s struggles because they have been through it as well.
“For the campers that come here, maybe they haven't been around other kids that have been touched by cancer like they have,” Griffin said. “We already saw on Day One that the kids are interacting and sharing about themselves and their cancer journey.”
“They know that they've all been through similar experiences so it's like they feel comfortable sharing or trying to become friends with them,” Bingea said. “They know that they are going to understand what they are going through or what they have gone through, and they can ask questions that they might not be able to ask anybody else.”
Those helping at the camp seem to be getting almost as much out of the experience as the campers.
“We see cancer take away so much from our patients and their families,” Sadak said. “This is a chance to put joy back into their lives. We see it all throughout the day at Camp Norden, in all these different activities. To personally see our patients, who have suffered so much, have so much joy is really amazing.”
Those involved all expect Camp Norden to return next year, and with greater numbers.
“The vision is there,” Griffin said. “The parents are excited. A lot of these kids are the prime age to experience camp and make friends. On the first day, we already had kids saying, ‘We can’t wait for next year.’ We see the potential of what this can be and how meaningful of an experience it has already been.”
For now, however, camp officials take solace in the fact that the weather was alright and memories were made.
“They are going to remember some of this stuff for a lifetime,” Dykes said. “Our son said something interesting about how he feels like everyone at this camp are people he can trust. He knows inherently that these are all people with the right intentions. Not that they don’t have the right intentions at other camps, but that he could feel that was really important.”