Camp Circle O’ Friends is an annual weekend at the lake for youth in Saskatchewan age six to 18 who have experienced cancer. Some have cancer. Others have a sister or brother or a parent who is sick. For four days of camp they let the good times roll.
They cook hot dogs at a campfire. They ride horses in the countryside and go tubing on the water. On variety night they paint their faces and wear costumes. The theme last year was Academy Awards. Another year it was the Olympics. This year the theme is space invaders.
“Disneyland is not the greatest place on Earth, camp is,” says Alissa Wilchynski, a camp volunteer.
Wilchynski grew up in Swift Current, went to high school in Prince Albert and studied in university in Calgary to be a nurse. Her sixth camp with Circle O’ Friends is June 15 to 18 at Arlington Beach on Last Mountain Lake.
“My first camp I really didn’t know what to expect,” she adds. “I found a place full of joy, full of hope. My stomach muscles hurt, I’ve never laughed so much.”
She shares stories with girls in a cabin at night and sings goofy songs with everyone in the dining hall in the morning. She went to camp thinking she could do something for the youth. Instead, she felt the spark they give her.
“Camp gives them the opportunity to do what they can,” Wilchynski says. “It’s a little girl in a wheelchair going horseback riding for the first time.
“It’s a teen boy, not really big physically, who not only climbs a rope, but climbs it to the top.
“They teach me life lessons.”
About 75 youth in Saskatchewan are at Circle O’ Friends each June. Some return every year until they reach the age limit, going to camp from the time they are tumbleweeds to when they are as tall as August corn.
“I heard about camp through my good friend Grant,” says Jess Martorana of Regina. “He was a fellow cancer patient who has since passed. I was just five years old. I went with my three older siblings. Having them there made it a lot easier to go at such a young age.”
Martorana has gone on to complete university. She spent last winter with friends in Nicaragua. Her image of camp lasts a lifetime.
“When I was sick and lost all of my hair, my mom made me hats to cover my little bald head,” she adds. “I had several different hats in an array of colours and patterns and I would never leave home without them.
“My fondest memory of camp was that first year. I was riding in the big yellow school bus with my friend Grant. He was bald. He looked at me and told me to take off my hat. Embarrassed, scared and slightly mortified I looked him in the eyes and slowly changed my glance over to Grant’s friend next to us. He was healthy and had a full head of hair.
“Grant saw the fear in my eyes. He assured me it was OK and that his friend wouldn’t laugh or stare. So I slowly took off my hat. He was right, nothing changed.
“I peaked over my seat to see if anyone else was looking. No one cared. No one even noticed. I remember feeling normal for the first time in a long time.”
After Martorana graduated from camp because of her age, she returned as a volunteer. A good chunk of the volunteers at Circle O’ Friends every year are former campers. They keep coming back for more.
Campers and volunteers go for a swim in the lake early in the morning in a camp tradition called the polar bear dip. They hit the Snack Shack for homemade cookies and fresh pineapple and watermelon. They make new friends and strengthen older ones; boys and girls, men and women.
Camp is special. You can see it on their faces. For details call (306) 374-2802; Email: cfrie...@sasktel.net or visit: campcircleoffriends.com.