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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Camp Sparkle brings summer vibes – and comfort – to kids impacted by cancer

A miniature Australian shepherd named Ginger caught a mouth-sized basketball to slam dunk into a short hoop, showing off a few Hoopfest skills at Manito Park.

And Millie the poodle did dance weaves to music, drawing smiles from among 21 kids at Camp Sparkle.

After the show by five dogs and handlers from the Ruff Revue, the campers turned to games and then a pool field trip.

It gave them hours away from a disease that casts sadness into their lives: cancer.

The Seattle-based nonprofit Cancer Pathways ran the day camp for ages 5-17 at Manito this past week. With 20 years on the state’s West Side, Camp Sparkle in Spokane finished its second year at no cost to children and teens impacted by cancer, either themselves or a family member. Locally, it’s Cancer Pathways Spokane.

“My mom has breast cancer, and my grandmother passed away from cancer,” said Benjamin Ledington, 10. “I was really sad.”

It helped to make friends at camp in similar situations.

“It is mostly just fun, but I like it because everybody in camp has cancer in their family of some sort, which is kind of cool because I always feel like I’m left out, or like alone. I feel like I’m the only one that my mom has cancer, and my grandma did.”

Children facing cancer feel that anxiety, said Michelle Massey, camp director and licensed oncology social worker. Cancer Pathways gears the camp to offer emotional support, connections and chances for kids just to have fun. Teens with similar cancer impacts can be counselors, while working with trained adult leaders.

Massey added that the sessions give children some space to breathe and feel less isolated, “so that symptoms of anxiety and depression decrease.”

The kids also get a chance to talk. The days began with a seated welcome circle where each child gives a name, age, who has cancer and a chance to share about a more open topic. It might be about a favorite pet or food. They can do a show-and-tell with a stuffed animal, photo or book.

“Everyone here has cancer in their lives in some way, so it’s not what defines them here,” Massey said. “They can concentrate on other things about who they are, and talk about other things.

“The friends that they make here – the community they build together – is important. Cancer is so hard in their lives. What they learn at Camp Sparkle really addresses that they are loved, valued and they can handle anything.

“We help them understand they can deal with challenges and have joy at the same time.”

Scarlett Bozo, 7, said she came because of her grandma and mother having cancer.

“My mom’s getting through cancer right now,” she said. The camp helps any kid like her, she added, and she’s glad there’s fun there, as well.

“It makes me happy at camp,” she said. “We get to have fun, do a lot of field trips, and like the dog show right now. I was a little sad about it (mom’s cancer), because we didn’t have so much fun stuff going on, but now she’s getting a little better. We’re doing a lot more fun stuff.”

Twins Bella and Gage Kuhn, 11, said they came last year and wanted to return. Bella said they were also supporting their brother, Bennett, 4, who has gone through cancer treatments. He was at camp with them.

“We came here because we liked it and thought it was fun,” Bella said. “It’s nice we go through (talking) how kids go through cancer, and we’re also here because of our little brother, Bennett, because he had cancer; it helps so we can help take care of him.”

For Madison Lynn, 11, she said her mother has leukemia.

“She recently just told me about it,” Madison said. “So what happened was every time she takes a shower, I always take a shower after her. But she tells me her hair keeps falling out. Her hair keeps growing, though.”

To which Massey responded to her feelings, “Right? It’s so confusing.”

Madison noticed her mom’s hair in the shower. “I feel bad for my mom,” she said. “I’ve met new friends here who are like me, that can compare.”

Massey said children understand cancer is a serious disease. If someone close dies, they can relive the experience as they age – especially milestones – such as if a father can’t walk a daughter down the aisle at a wedding.

“Children understand a lot,” she said. “They definitely get it.”

Abigail Small and Michelle Chen, both 17, were among counselors.

“It’s an experience I share with them,” said Small, who had a germ cell tumor at age 10 but is now cancer-free. “Some of them have been personally affected and diagnosed, and others of them have had aunts, uncles, parents, grandparents affected. But in the end, they’re just a bunch of happy kids who have had a not so happy experience.”

Chen, who has done oncology research at Washington State University, said both her grandparents died from cancer in the past year in China. She knew them well from earlier childhood visits and agreed there’s often fear and sadness around the disease.

“I think those emotions don’t show as much on the kids, because they’re just kids; but they know they’re going through this,” Chen said.

Other groups here offer similar camps, including Camp Goodtimes at YMCA Camp Reed, Camp Journey NW at Post Falls’ Ross Point and Camp Kesem in Rathdrum.

Terri Weeding, local Cancer Pathways community outreach manager, said the past week’s Camp Sparkle is the only one scheduled here this summer. However, people can register children on a waiting list for next year.

For more information on that and other programs, go online to and scroll to Inland Northwest Resources Hub, including links to other camps.