Wyoming camp helps young cancer survivors heal

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JACKSON, Wyo. (AP) — They are the most normal group of kids you can imagine, except they are all cancer survivors.

When they got out of a van last week to canoe on the tranquil waters of String Lake, there was the bustle of games and conversation that accompanies every children's camp.

Canoeing is one of many experiences that nine cancer survivors, ages 11 to 19, had during the weeklong Children's Grand Adventure.

Founded in 2008 by part-time Jackson resident Stacey Kayem, the camp brings young cancer survivors from Houston to experience the therapy of nature together in the Tetons and Yellowstone National Park. The group partners with Teton Science Schools each summer.

Campers are selected through a recommendation and screening process that ensures they can participate in the activities.

Kids benefit in many ways from the program, said Dr. David Poplack, director of Texas Children's Cancer Center in Houston.

"We can treat the children, but to have them heal takes more than just the medications we can give them," Poplack told the News&Guide in 2013. "This experience has a major impact in terms of improving their quality of life, their outlook, their confidence, giving them a positive attitude."

For some the adventure begins with the first step on an airplane. This year's group included two first-time fliers.

With activities like wildlife-watching float trips, riding the Aerial Tram and camping in Yellowstone National Park, there are first-time experiences for everyone.

As the campers paddled along String Lake, one boy comforted a first-time canoer, talking about overcoming his fears of snakes and alligators the first time he canoed.

The chaperones from Houston are both past patients. Bree Kulhanek was on her sixth trip as a leader and George Bember his fourth. Bember was one of only four campers on the inaugural Grand Adventure, and he credits it as one of the best experiences of his life.

Diagnosed with Burkitt's lymphoma at age 15, Bember faced stage IV cancer, which went into remission after only six months of chemotherapy.

"This is just another way to give back," Bember said. "This is my niche."

It was Kulhanek who invited him to lead the trip.

"She asked me at a gala, and I didn't even have to think," he said. "Yes, of course, yes."

Simran Jatar, 17, one of the campers, has lived in Houston all her life. When she mentioned her dream of becoming a pediatric oncologist, almost-12-year-old Ashley Brown chimed in, "I want to be a pediatric oncologist, too!"

Jatar volunteers at the hospital and heads a team in Relay for Life, a cancer research fundraiser. Her experiences motivate her. Many friends have died, she said, and "the ones who live live, and there's got to be a reason for it."

For Brown the trip was the longest she had ever been away from her mom, dad and three sisters.

Brown lived in the hospital for two years dealing with sarcoma.

"My mom home-schooled me but more hospital-schooled me," she said.

When asked why she wants to be a pediatric oncologist, Brown talks about the kindness of her doctors and wanting to use her story to help others: "I lived, so you can too."

In the clean air of the Tetons, it was easy to find strength in the youngster's words.

Out over String Lake a song began to echo, and for a moment the words of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" filled the air, accompanied by a smile from the singing boy.

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Information from: Jackson Hole (Wyo.) News And Guide, http://www.jhnewsandguide.com

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