Vince Wirtner, C.PP.S.
People ask me how I can go to a camp for kids with cancer, and I answer, how can I not go? It’s one of my favorite places on earth. There’s hope there. There’s absolute joy. We’re not focused on cancer; we’re focused on fun.
For over 20 years, including this year, I’ve been spending part of my summer at Camp Watcha-Wanna-Do in Milford, Ind., about an hour northwest of my hometown of Fort Wayne. It’s a week-long residential camp for kids whose lives have been touched by cancer in some way. Either they have it or someone in their family does.
A cancer diagnosis effects the whole family. It brings sickness, worry and a strange new vocabulary into a home. Camp offers a week-long break from all of that, as much as possible. A kid might still have to take treatments at camp, but can get right back to the activities. Cancer recedes into the background when a kid is swimming or horseback riding. The kids themselves will tell you, “We know we have cancer. It’s nice to have some time away from it, when we’re not focused on cancer and the treatments.”
Many of these kids come back to the camp every year, and they’ve got friend there. It’s a very social and supportive environment for them. They’re also allowed to bring a guest, a brother or sister or a friend. We also invite kids who have lost a sibling to cancer, and they can bring a friend too.
I first came to camp at the invitation of my co-workers at Lutheran Hospital in Fort Wayne. I’d just gotten my nursing license, and I wasn’t yet looking into life with a religious community—though that time was getting close. My co-workers asked me, “Would you be interested in coming to the camp and working with the kids?” They already knew me well enough to know about my love of people on the margins, people who are suffering. They knew it would be right in my wheelhouse.
They needed a guy at camp who was a nurse but not a cancer nurse, someone who could help out with the first aid that kids need at camp: splinters, bumps and bruises. A lot of the other nurses at the camp are professional cancer nurses. I’m there so that a nurse who is administering chemo or another cancer treatment doesn’t have to worry about a kid coming through the door with poison ivy.
I’m never not a priest, but when I’m at camp, I’m there as a nurse. Camp give me a chance to step away from the everyday busy-ness of life in a parish and minister to people in a different way. It renews my spirit in the same way that it renews the kids’ spirits. You can see it happening in the course of the week.
There are staff members from the YMCA who lead the camp and all the activities. It’s a full week for the kids, who are ages 7–18. Some of the kids love it so much that when they age out of being campers, they come back as counselors. They’re always surprised at how much work it is to keep track of a cabin full of campers! One of the kids said, “I didn’t realize this was so hard!” You never know until you’re on the other side of the cabin.
It’s great to be with the kids, and it’s also great to be with the other nurses. I’m not blind to the fact that some of the kids don’t come back to camp. Some of the kids who make it back to camp can’t do all of the activities that they used to be able to do. I can process everything I’m feeling with the cancer nurses, because they deal with it every single day. I remember asking one of them, “How can you do this every day?” She answered,
“Because I absolutely love it, and I love the kids and want to help them get better, or die peacefully.”
Even though we can’t fully forget what the kids are going through, I’ve never found the camp to be depressing or sad. I always find hope there.
The camp helps me in my life as a priest. To see what these kids and their families are going through has helped me to be a better minister. Experiences outside of our normal life always do. They make me feel like I’m being prepared for something—I don’t know what, but I’ll find out later on.
So every year, I ask if I can come back to camp. And they say, “Do you even have to ask anymore?” But I do ask. Being at camp with those kids is a privilege. It’s a spiritual retreat where I get to fly down a zip line. It’s a joy. It’s a gift.
Fr. Vince Wirtner is the parochial vicar at Immaculate Conception Church in Celina, Ohio.