Camp Okizu: More Than Just Fun And Games

Oncology Camp participants Annelise Green-Burke (2nd from left) and Sadie Cibula (in red), both originally from Shasta County, with Okizu camp counselors. Photo: Michael Burke.

Camp Okizu expands across 500 acres at Berry Creek, 70 miles north of Sacramento, and embraces thousands of children and families every year. Four lakes, sleeping cabins and shower facilities dot the landscape to meet the basic needs of its visitors. Opportunities to fish, swim and hike provide hours of fun and adventure for young and old.

Upon closer inspection, something much greater is transpiring amidst the roasted marshmallows, dance parties, laughter, and sometimes tears … Camp Okizu serves children with cancer, along with their families.

Okizu founders Dr. Michael Amylon "Dr. Mike" (left) and John Bell (right). Photo: Michael Burke.

The inspiration for the camp started with a regret. Thirty years ago, Okizu Chairman and Co-founder John Bell was a patient care volunteer with Hospice of Marin, assisting a gentleman who was the same age as himself. The man had expressed regret about dying without having had children. The encounter affected Bell deeply. “I wanted to do something to remember him,” he says.

A television report about a camp in Buffalo, N.Y., that hosted kids with cancer provided the idea that led Bell to the Robert J. Sturhahn Foundation. The foundation collaborated with six northern California hospitals serving kids with cancer, to create a similar camp program for the West Coast.

Doctors and nurses volunteered to provide physical care for the children for one week, and so on a warm summer evening in 1982, twenty-nine children found themselves sleeping beneath the stars in a rented Camp Fire Girls campground named Camp Okizu. Okizu is a Sioux word meaning “to unify, to come together as one.” Sturhahn died in December of that same year, and Sturhahn’s memory remains deeply rooted in the birth of the program, which later was officially named Okizu.

During the second and third years of the program, families were asked to help renovate the facilities. Staff noticed that while the parents ate dinner, they were having conversations about their child’s blood counts, treatments and struggles. Counselors then met with the parents and had roundtable discussions regarding parents’ concerns, ultimately inspiring the creation of Family Camp – a weekend retreat for families to rest and have fun while interacting with others who share similar experiences.

Today, Okizu provides several programs for families. Oncology Camp is a weeklong summer program designed for children undergoing and recovering from cancer treatments. Water fights, crafts, canoeing, archery and eating snow cones are some of the activities that provide a time to rediscover the purity and joys of childhood. Two or three trained counselors within each cabin group help participants plan their daily activities.

Siblings Camp is designed to support the siblings of a child with cancer. Hanna Malak attended sibling camp when his older brother Charlie, now 28, had been diagnosed with Leukemia at the age of 12. Sibling camp is important for “sibs” because they are often overlooked, says Malak: “Random presents are given to the sick child, and they are the center of attention.” Malak found camp to be a safe place to talk about his feelings and to meet others who were going through the same struggles.

Teens-N-Twenties (TNT) weekend retreats are offered to 18- to 25-year-old patients and siblings, to provide opportunities for developing friendships and to give and receive support from peers.

Bereavement Camp changed Daniel Constanz’s life. He attended the camp after his 8-year-old brother passed away in August of 2000. “After my brother died, I didn’t know if I could talk openly about it,” explains Constantz. “But the camp environment is inclusive and I was free to talk about whatever I needed to.”

Constantz returned to the camp to participate in the Jr. Staff program. He quickly realized he wanted to become a counselor. “I thought they were the coolest,” he says, “and I wanted to do what they did.” Now his motivation to return each year has shifted: “I know I’m giving kids the best week out of their whole year.”

To continue touching the lives of children and families, Okizu strives to meet the unique and varied needs that may arise. In 2007, an air-conditioned boathouse was built near the water because some children have systems that cannot regulate their own body temperature. There is still more to be accomplished and the number of attendees is always increasing, “But we don’t want anyone to not come, so we never charge or turn anyone away,” Bell says.

Okizu is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and depends on financial donations to run the program. Besides financial donations, a wish list of needed items can be found on the Okizu website at Okizu’s 18th Annual Art Inspiring Hope Gala fundraiser takes place on March 10th, 2012 in San Francisco.

“We treat the whole family and keep them with us forever in our prayers,” says Bell. And although he has witnessed many inspiring moments while serving at Camp Okizu, when asked what has impacted him the most over the years, he responds, “Seeing the common acts of kindness.” He tells a story of a twelve-year-old girl who was blind due to bilateral retinoblastoma. The other girls at the camp included her in all their activities, guiding her, even helping her eat. “The kids take care of each other,” he says. “It’s the coolest part of the whole thing.”

If you have questions or would like additional information about Okizu, visit online, call (415) 382-9083, or write to Okizu, 16 Digital Dr., Suite 130, Novato, CA 94949.


Kimberly Shaw
About Kimberly Shaw

Kimberly Shaw is a local Northern California author.

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