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Sherri Keaton, Published August 07 2010

Letting kids be kids: Camp unites those dealing with cancer

Jeff Nelson doesn’t know what quitting means.

On Wednesday, the 18-year-old Argusville, N.D., resident chose to jump over an inflatable obstacle course instead of crawling underneath it. He used his hands to scale another inflatable wall.

All of this with just one leg.

“I took off my (prosthetic) leg and shoe, and as I was jumping over it sideways, I heard all the kids in the background say, ‘Whoa,’ ” Nelson said of his climbing experience. “So I think it is cool things like that I do (that can) inspire kids to think ‘wow I can do that.’ ”

Nelson, who was diagnosed with cancer at 17 years old, lost his left leg to cancer and has been attending Kamp KACE (Kids Against Cancer Everywhere) for the past two years. He attended first as a camper and this year as a counselor in training.

“A lot of people do things with two legs that I can do with two arms and a leg,” Nelson said. “Cancer is not going to slow me down.”

Nelson and numerous other young people have found something special in this camp, which helps children who have gone through or are dealing with cancer participate in regular camping activities with their siblings.

The feeling of sickness is something that doesn’t always disappear, “but this camp, the trees, the water, the people especially help you not even think about it. (Campers are) living for the moment,” Nelson explained.

KACE, founded in 1986, was held this past week just outside of Vergas, Minn., on 88 acres of land. Each year in August, campers ages 5 to 18 gather for one week.

This year, there were about 90 campers and 50 staff members, including doctors and nurses from Innovis Health and Sanford Health’s Roger Maris Cancer Center. The camp aims to give campers a feeling of normalcy, but attendees also are able to receive medical treatment there.

“They get to come here and be regular kids,” said camp director Kim Belgarde. “Whether they are bald or taking chemo, they get to participate in regular activities.”

The camp activities range from arts and crafts to swimming games to a dance to campfires and skits.

Belgarde started working at the camp in 1986, and while there she became cancer-stricken. “It was pretty phenomenal that I was able to have my treatments out here and still work,” she said. Belgarde also had a new perspective on working with the kids. “Now I know what they are going through.”

Maddison Williams, a 10-year-old Mayville, N.D., resident was 3 years old when diagnosed with cancer. She has attended camp for the past five years.

“I have to believe that I will get better, and as long as I am at camp and having fun, it kind of reminds me about my cancer, and I feel happy that I survived.”

Dr. Janet Tillisch, an Innovis pediatrician and the Kamp KACE board president has been at the camp every year since it started.

“It is just amazing to see how it has progressed over the years,” she said.

The camp also allows the campers to not feel like they are the only ones with their condition.

“When they come to the camp, there are a lot of kids that have the same thing they have,” she said.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Sherri Keaton at (701) 235-7311