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Teens With Cancer Find Camaraderie At Summer Camp

It's a balmy Saturday morning at the Rotary campground in Brandon. Dark clouds are threatening to unleash the fury of a Florida summer rainstorm, so the canoes and kayaks have been packed up for the day.

Now, the teens are just hanging out. Some are getting their nails and hair done, others are doing arts and crafts.

But this isn't your typical summer camp.

It revolves around this motto:

“Cancer is serious, but camp is serious fun."

Peggie Sherry heads up "Faces of Courage,”  the organization that runs this free program.

It welcomes teens and young adults -- ages 13 to 22 from all over Florida -- who are being treated for cancer or other life-threatening illnesses. It's a chance for them to feel normal between the chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

Matthew Lambert is hanging out near the tie-dye station to help kids twist T-shirts and dip them into colored vats of water. The 30-year-old counselor was diagnosed with leukemia when he was six. He knows exactly how liberating a weekend away from the hospital can be.

"A lot of the kids in there not one or two days or one or two months,” Lambert said. “A lot of the kids are admitted. They live there. So a weekend away is a big deal, to be able to do regular arts and crafts or just hang out."

Here, the nurses passing out oral chemotherapy pills and other medications wear flamingo hats and brightly colored Hawaiian shirts.

And if someone scrapes their knee playing basketball? Well, they're there for that, too.

Parents, Peggie Sherry  said, get to take the weekend off.

"You're not calling the oncologist, you're not calling the nurse practitioner, you're not calling the radiologist, you're not calling your general practitioner." Sherry said. "You're calling me to say, 'Hey, I want to drop my kids off for the weekend. Here, have them.'"

Activities are set up inside and around the Rotary Camp of Florida's facility. Matthew Rivera, 22, is floating between the tie-dye station and a table where campers are hammering nails into shapes on wood.

It's his second year at camp. Rivera has been fighting a brain tumor since he was 16. He said camp lets him bunk up with other young adults who have struggled to stay in school or have a normal job.

"You get to endure something with other people who are enduring, not the same thing as you, but people who have similar battles,” Rivera said.

Sherry, a two-time cancer survivor, started Faces of Courage in 2004. She runs the nonprofit with volunteers. It's tiring, but doing hair with campers like Jessica Cilme keep her going.

“You think he’s gonna make magic with your hair?” Sherry asked Jessica. “What do you want it to look like?”

“Just a little more short and textured,” Jessica replied.

The 16-year-old doesn't have cancer, but her older sister Erica does.

"It's a really good camp for therapy for both the sibling and the kid who's going through cancer,” Jessica said. “You don't feel so separated because everyone else is going through the same thing and you can kinda just fit in."

Faces of Courage doesn't just organize the camp for teens and young adults. There are four others. One is for women of color. The next two events in September are for any woman who has battled cancer. In December, there's a children's retreat for ages two to twelve.

Sherry said the camp doesn't cure their cancer, but it does help.

"There is something about sitting up at night in a  cabin with your peers and someone showing them their port or someone else shows another scar or talking about the medications they're taking,” Sherry said.

Sherry said someday she hopes Faces of Courage can buy its own facility. That way, it can run camps all the time. 

Daylina Miller is a reporter with WUSF in Tampa. WUSF is part of  Health News Florida, which receives support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Daylina Miller is a multimedia reporter for WUSF and Health News Florida, covering health in the Tampa Bay area and across the state.