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Camp STRONG gives kids with Cancer and heart conditions 10 years of summer camp smiles

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Posted at 5:00 PM, Jun 21, 2024

AVANT, Okla. — For a week in June, tucked in the rolling hills of Oklahoma, there's a unique summer camp for kids who otherwise wouldn't get to go to camp.

It's called Camp STRONG, and it's been creating summer magic for the last ten years.

"We are an overnight summer camp for kids with Cancer or heart conditions put on by Saint Francis Children's Hospital," said Christina Manley, Certified Child Life Specialist and Summer Camp Coordinator for Camp STRONG.

Here, children facing grown-up things can just be kids.

"So many of these kids aren't able to go to any other summer camp because of their medical conditions. So we staff this with nurses from the PICU from inpatient and outpatient oncology hospital and other nurses and doctors, physical therapy assistants, and various staff that come out here all week," said Manley.
"It's like a camp that knows you," said Brekin Gallagher, who is back for his second year.

At just 15, he's battled a brain tumor and brain cancer.

"I am cured of all of that. My first tumor was removed, and my brain cancer was removed after my second chemo, but I've been out of cancer treatment for about a year and a half now," said Brekin.

He continues to find healing at Camp STRONG. "You can relate to a lot of these kids. Here, I get to talk about what I've gone through and other stuff, and it just feels like another home," said Breckin.

It helps to have his sisters by his side. His two sisters were able to come this year. One of his sisters, Brailyn Gallagher, said, "It's amazing—I can be here with my brother, with him being healthy and happy and everything."

Manley adds, "Every camper who is a patient is allowed to bring at least one sibling, depending on bed spaces. Sometimes, we'll allow multiple siblings, but I think it's healing and beneficial for the sibling as well. When a kid goes through cancer treatment or a heart transplant, it impacts the whole family."

Around 90 kids are here for a week's overnight camp at Shepherd's Fold Ranch.

"It's so beautiful - there are so many trees, and it's so lively here. It's so green. It is so majestic!" said Breckin.

We discover campers doing everything from archery to martial arts to arts and crafts.

15-year-old Hazelle French said, "I love being outside; I'm definitely getting some sun. And the activities-- I love it."

"I'm most looking forward to the zipline," said Brailyn.

Kenton Grego points out that while the campers enjoy a lot of nature, "We don't actually sleep in tents; we sleep in cabins, so that's nice."

Cooking up something this special is no small feat.

Saint Francis funds Camp STONG with generous donors and community partners. The magical week takes about nine months of planning.

Sharing hopes, dreams, and smiles is Camp STRONG's specialty.

"It warms my heart; it makes me so happy. I feel so blessed to get to do this," said Manley.

The kids are grateful, too, and are already planning for next summer.

"I don't even think thank you are strong enough to describe how we are to our care providers for making us feel like kids again sometimes," said Hazelle.

"I would love to come back and so another year- and more years to come," said Brailyn.

Camp STRONG is held in mid-June for kids ages 6 to 19.

You can learn more about it here.

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