By Kim Constantinesco
There’s a group of people that believe magic truly exists, a group of people that arguably need it to exist the most. This group believes that the unbelievable can happen naturally simply by stepping through a rainbow-colored portal where hope, healing, compassion, acceptance, and fun take center stage. The key, then, is piecing that spectrum of colors together year in and year out.
Camp Wapiyapi sits just outside of Estes Park, Colorado at the base of Long’s Peak, and it serves families who are affected by childhood cancer. The unique quality about this camp is that it opens its arms to not only children who have cancer, but to their siblings as well.
Each camper is paired with an adult companion, or a best buddy for the week, to maximize the camp experience. Nearly 1,500 kids between the ages of 6 and 17 have been served since 1998 when University of Colorado medical students made the informal, but brilliant decision to start the camp.
‘Wapiyapi’ is a Lakota Sioux word for healing and hope, but to adults and children alike, it’s simply known as “Camp.” There are no adjectives big enough or encompassing enough to describe the week-long no cost respite for all members of the family, so it’s simplistic term suffices for all. Formalities are discouraged anyway, unless of course a camper has to refer to an assistant camp director. Then the proper ‘Sir Farts-A-Lot’ title is not only accepted but preferred.
A Rousing Taste of Wapiyapi
On any given day during one of the camp’s three sessions, one could cruise the grounds and see children fishing on the lake, attending to their unfinished projects in the craft shack, playing putt-putt golf, basketball, or a lively game of Mafia or Uno. That’s just what goes on during down time.
During scheduled events, one might witness a spirited paint war followed by a water fight. An hour later, team leaders might take eight pies to the face courtesy of their campers. Then at dinner, a super companion, or jack-of-all-trades kind of helper, might have to swallow a concoction of milk, tabasco sauce, ranch dressing, salt, pepper, sugar, spice, and other things not so nice on the taste buds all because a camper convinced his or her older pal that it would be entertaining to watch. Within reason, campers run the show. It’s a chance for them to give orders rather than constantly take orders from doctors and nurses.
“They get to be kids, and they don’t have to worry about going to the hospital, or when their next appointment is, or when their next chemo is,” assistant camp director, longtime volunteer, and cancer survivor Kelsey Batson said. “It’s just all about fun, and the joy stems from that. The joy stems from the fact that Wapiyapi is centered on them. They lead it, they design it, they direct it.”
Each night is punctuated by a camp-wide activity such as gathering around the campfire for songs and s’mores, dancing the night away at a disco, or watching and cultivating appreciation for various gifts and genius at the talent show.
To put it simply, each day is filled with excitement and a steady stream of wild and crazy while each night is where the memories are laminated and friendships shift from “Nice to meet you” to life-long solidarity.
Lance Armstrong and the Camp Connection
On one sunny afternoon this year at camp, Lance Armstrong and his girlfriend, Anna Hansen, strolled relatively unannounced onto Wapiyapi grounds.
Naturally, Armstrong managed to find his way to some wheels with spokes. However, the cycling world couldn’t have been further from his thoughts. Armstrong grabbed hold of the wheelchair, tipped it back, and used his leg muscles to push Kelsey’s younger brother, Galen Batson, 22, over rock-filled trails.
The destination wasn’t a finish line. It was a zip line.
This is Galen’s second encounter with cancer, and it has progressed so much that he has decided to forgo treatment and live out the rest of his life at home surrounded by familiar comfort and never-ending love, rather than in a hospital setting.
“He wasn’t doing well, but he was psyched to be there,” Armstrong said of Galen, who made a day trip up to camp from his home in Boulder. “They asked him if he wanted to do the zip line. I’m thinking, ‘There’s no way,’ but he nodded ‘Yes.’ Seeing him get on there with his sister and do the zip line was unbelievable. Up to that point, it was the best day of the summer.”
“There weren’t a lot of dry eyes around them,” Hansen added.
Hansen introduced Armstrong to Wapiyapi because she volunteered there for 10 years. She heard about the camp through her pre-med honor society at the University of Colorado.
“It just changed my life,” Hansen said. “I was hooked from the first camp. I’ve always been drawn to kids and kid causes. I volunteered in oncology at Denver Children’s [Hospital], too. I guess for me, that was a huge impact seeing them at the hospital and then going to camp and seeing their transformation, and them being comfortable in their skin. I can’t count the number of times that I would see a sibling in there just kind of alone in a corner, or couldn’t go in the playroom because their sibling was sick and couldn’t come out.”
One of Hansen’s most memorable experiences was when a cancer patient from France decided to come experience Wapiyapi. After college, Hansen lived in France for a year teaching English, but she made plans to come back for camp June. One particular year, camp staff asked her if she would switch over from a team leader role to a companion role because they figured that she was the one that could best communicate with the camper from France.
“He didn’t speak much English at all,” Hansen said. “That was just a wild year. There was so much laughter and so many funny things that got lost in translation.”
Even though Hansen had been telling Armstrong stories like this since they met in 2008, it was something that Armstrong couldn’t fully appreciate until he visited.
“I expected it to be fun and cool, but it was even more intense than that,” Armstrong said. “I think the whole team thing and the camaraderie amongst the counselors and kids, that was not what I expected.”
Hansen was just as thrilled to show the father of their two children what she had been talking about for all these years.
“It was really cool,” Hansen said. “I was just so proud. It was like my thing. I’m just proud of Wapiyapi and the kids. You can explain it all day long, and he’s certainly seen amazing programs, but to see it first hand is different.”
That cancer connection is what helped foster their relationship. Armstrong and Hansen met when she worked for First Descents, a free outdoor adventure program for young adults fighting cancer. First Descents hired a couple of employees from Armstrong’s foundation, and Armstrong’s manager, Mark Higgins, was good friends with one of Hansen’s new colleagues. The two eventually met and fell hard for each other.
The Impact of Wapiyapi
A seven year veteran of Wapiyapi, Mallory Evans, 19, was diagnosed at 11 years old with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL), a type of blood and bone marrow cancer.
“At that time, I had trouble connecting with kids my own age because you have to grow up pretty quickly after you’re diagnosed,” Evans said. “Kids just didn’t understand that in school. At camp, everyone in some way has gone through the same thing even if it’s a different diagnosis or different treatment. At the core of it, we all accept each other for who we are. Anything you might feel awkward about in real life, you feel good about at camp because there’s no discrimination. It’s meant the world to me.”
It’s true that when burden is shared, it’s cut in half. Kevin Mesch, 21, and his younger sister, Maddi, lost their older brother, Zach, four years ago to ALL. Kevin is a nine year veteran at Wapiyapi.
“People understand you and you don’t have to pretend to be someone you’re not there,” Kevin said. “You can be yourself and no one looks at you like you’re fragile or you’re broken whether you have cancer or whether you’ve lost a sibling to it.”
Just before Zach passed, Kevin acknowledged that multiple camp friends dropped what they were doing and drove straight to the hospital to support the Mesch family.
“Then after it happened, more people stopped their lives to help us,” Kevin said. “I’ll never forget it. Now as a companion, I try to be there for the campers in the same way.”
Lance and Anna Ride for a Cause
Armstrong’s involvement with the cancer community has been well documented. Of course at 25 years old, winning his own battle with testicular cancer that had spread to his brain, lungs, and abdomen was far bigger than any race he had participated in.
He knows the in’s and out’s of the disease all too well. He knows the hair loss and the grueling nausea and vomiting associated with chemo. He soaked in the florescent lights from hospital ceilings for periods far too long. He has felt loss, seen miracles, and experienced grief at the deepest levels.
That’s why when Armstrong sees children battling the disease, he’s beyond impressed.
“If you take a 40-year-old with any type of cancer and a 4-year-old with cancer, and you just follow them in their environment in the hospital or in the chemo ward, I don’t know if this is emotional or physical or what, but the 40-year-old is laid out in bed, doesn’t move, doesn’t want to move,” Armstrong said. “The 4-year-old is down in the toy room or on his bike in the hallways, and continues to rip, live, and play.”
“I’m guilty, too,” Armstrong continued. “When I was 25, I was laid out. Kids for whatever reason just keep on wanting to live the way they’ve always lived and that’s with their friends and toys, and whatever else they’re in to. The energy is completely different. It’s pretty inspiring. Of course, there are times where it’s just so bad that nobody can move. Not even that bionic 4-year-old. Maybe it’s just sort of ignorance is bliss. They don’t understand the odds and the consequences.”
Armstrong and Hansen have been so impacted by what they’ve experienced in the cancer community that they’ve made it a point to regularly give back to Wapiyapi. Each August, they hold a bike ride and dinner at their house in Aspen with all proceeds going directly to sending children to camp. It costs about $1,000 to send one kid to camp per week.
“Cycling for Wapiyapi started in 2010,” executive director Darla Dakin said. “It’s a significant source of revenue for us and we’re greatly appreciative.”
This year, former pro cyclists George Hincapie and Bob Roll were also part of the ride.
Armstrong and Hansen know the importance of having an outlet for these kids. When Armstrong was a patient, his outlet was an obvious one.
“I still rode during treatment a little bit,” Armstrong said. “It was kind of an escape. They weren’t long rides, they weren’t intense, but it was the one escape I had. That was sort of the thing I knew to go to.”
Wapiyapi is the thing that these kids know to go to. They use camp not so much as an avenue for escape, but as a way for them to be able to stay in their harsh reality. That’s the biggest dose of medicine and magic they can receive.
If after reading this story, you’re inspired by Wapiyapi and the kids who attend, please consider making a donation here.