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Finding the Peace . . . and keeping it

Camp Keepsake offers more than the great outdoors

By Stacey Wiebe

Karie Rothschild-Roos, Christoper Roos and Dianne Carlson, founders of Camp Keepsake.

 

here is one night a year when guests of Camp Keepsake gather to voice beautiful wishes and air hopes for the future that outshine the stars over Malibu Canyon.

Some pen their waking dreams onto scrolls and read them aloud to the group. Those whose wishes burn too brightly to be voiced write them down and keep quiet and, when all has been written or read, the campers arrange the scrolls into a pile and set them on fire.

When the blaze dies down, the ashes are gathered, mixed with some ash from the previous year’s ceremony and doled out, in vials, to the campers. This is one way they can bring Camp Keepsake home with them and hold onto the peace they find there throughout the year.

Camp Keepsake caters to adults diagnosed with cancer, but the scroll ceremony isn’t about being sick. It’s about being alive.

The rock climbing wall is a favorite for both children and adults alike.

And for campers like Lynn Peraza of Camarillo, it’s something to hold onto when the worst comes to pass. Days before Peraza underwent surgery last year to combat breast cancer, she told her doctor she had just one request: “I told the surgeon, ‘We either have to do it now or wait a month, because I’m going to camp.’ ”

Camp Keepsake is an annual weekend getaway designed to cater to the needs of those with cancer, whether newly diagnosed, in treatment or in remission, and up to five guests — usually family members — of their own choosing. It’s unlike virtually any other camp like it in that it’s free and, while children are often guests, the camp isn’t targeted at kids.

“A lot of people have an apprehension about going to camp because they’re afraid it’s going to be depressing, that people will be bald and sick,” says Christopher Roos, president of the Cancer Hope Foundation, a Camarillo-based nonprofit organization that benefits cancer patients, their families and friends. “The truth is that you often can’t tell who’s suffering from cancer.”

Camp Keepsake is the foundation’s single large, annual event, and the organization’s small team works all year to raise the funds to pamper campers and their guests for two days at Camp Mt. Crags, in Calabasas. The theme for this year’s camp, scheduled for Oct. 6-8, is “Back to the Island.” The deadline to apply for the camp is Sept. 1, though it could be extended under special circumstances.

Fifty-three-year-old Peraza, who was diagnosed with breast cancer three years ago, attended the camp for three consecutive years and describes the experience as an opportunity to forget about the stresses of daily life in general — not to mention the stresses of daily life complicated by cancer. “Everything is set up so you can get away, be with other adults and try to forget what you’re going through.”

Peraza broke her arm about a week prior to heading off to camp for the first time and, because she was suffering severe anemia due to chemotherapy treatments, was confined to a wheelchair. The second year she attended, Peraza had her husband, daughters and grandkids in tow. Last year, a biopsy revealed that her cancer had returned. She underwent a double mastectomy days before heading off to camp. “Knowing the camp was there is what got me through that ordeal,” she says. “Knowing I was going made the difference.”

Hiking is one of the many activities campers may choose to participate in while at camp.

Camp Keepsake, started in 2000, is largely the brainchild of Roos, who, in addition to managing the foundation with his wife, Karie Rothschild-Roos, runs two wholly unrelated businesses: Dal/Lyn International Inc., a fastener distribution business, and Concrete Solutions and Supply. The pair also finds the time to raise three children.

Roos lost a friend, Dave, to cancer while planning the logistics of the camp, preparing for the new responsibilities and learning how to manage the sizable endeavor. “We just couldn’t stop doing it,” Rothschild-Roos says. “Once you see how happy it makes the campers, it’s amazing … It was Chris’ dream. It was his vision.”

The foundation requires no funding for overhead costs because it has no paid staffers and is housed in the Rooses’ existing offices — which means that even a $5 donation to Camp Keepsake helps send cancer patients and their loved ones to camp.

The camp is largely funded through grants and donations, but the Rooses’ say they’re always prepared to foot the bill — by whatever means possible — if donations ever fall short. Last year, it cost about $44,000 to stage the camp. Roos hopes to one day offer two camps a year, back to back. “If we have to borrow or have a garage sale, we will.”

The commitment is evident on their faces, as well as on the face of Dianne Carlson, an integral part of the team, who also works for Roos at Dal/Lyn. Carlson volunteers each year at the camp and sits, as does Peraza, on the foundation’s 14-member board. “It keeps us off the street and out of mischief,” Carlson says.

The camp itself is no five-star hotel, but isn’t about roughing it, by any means. Each group of guests is supplied with a counselor who attends to the needs of visitors. A doctor and nurse are on hand at all times in case a guest has a medical problem. Guests sleep indoors, in cabins, are served regular meals and can choose from a wide range of activities, including — but definitely not limited to — live shows, hiking, archery, hypnotherapy, beading and other arts and crafts.

The camp’s spa area, where professionals from the community volunteer time to massage campers and perform facials, haircuts, pedicures, manicures, reflexology and more, is particularly popular. “We had a camper one year who has since become a counselor, and she said camp was her idea of what heaven would be like,” Carlson says.

Staff and Campers alike gather in the campfire area for various festivities.

The spa area, Peraza says, is a special treat because it’s a place to catch up on grooming with no effort. “Especially for women, it might be their first haircut since their hair started coming back,” she says. “It’s just those little things, whether you’re male or female, that make you feel good about yourself.”

Camp Keepsake’s version of heaven is a place where those with cancer don’t have to feel self-conscious about their ailments, a place where they don’t have to talk about it unless they choose to, and a place where they aren’t the only ones in wigs.

“I became very attached to one of the campers and she passed away,” says Rothschild-Roos. “I wasn’t sure I could continue to do it, but then someone sent a letter saying, ‘I wasn’t sure I wanted to go, but my 12-year-old son begged me to go and, at 11 o’clock, I found myself dancing with him under the stars. Thank you,’ and I said, ‘OK, I have to do it.’ ”

Losing two close friends to cancer at very young ages inspired Roos to establish the foundation and Camp Keepsake as a way to reaffirm life and provide an outlet for those suffering from the disease.

While helping to care for a woman named Jodi, a close friend and former roommate, Roos realized that there aren’t enough opportunities for those with cancer to enjoy life, regardless of what stage of the disease they’re experiencing.

“I was helping to take her to treatments,” Roos says of Jodi. “In the last few days, when hospice came in, people came to see her — but she was so medicated that she wasn’t able to enjoy the love and support. I wondered what it would have been like if she were coherent enough.”

Camp can be an opportunity for cancer patients and their loved ones to relax and enjoy life — or to say goodbye. “Hopefully, the person will last another 80 years,” Roos says, “but, if they don’t, they can at least have this experience with the people they love.”

A man suffering from cancer on the West Coast may have a brother on the East Coast who can’t attend his brother’s treatments, but he could fly in for the weekend to spend time with his brother at camp, a place loaded with opportunities to relax, indulge in some pampering, or even get a little exercise.

It’s also a chance for people in treatment to enjoy a short vacation that they would otherwise not be able to afford.

This year, Peraza will be attending camp as a volunteer instead of a camper. “When you go, everyone treats you like a long-lost friend,” she says. “They make it such an enjoyable weekend that you can put all your concerns and fears on the back burner for a couple of days … I felt I was at the point where I should give my spot up to someone else who hasn’t had an opportunity to go.”

08-01-2006

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