When Samantha Cattaneo, Syracuse office coordinator for Camp Good Days and Special Times, visits a school, she tugs on heartstrings.
"These kids are you," she says to a classroom full of students, referring to the campers that come to the charity's summer and year-round programs. Imagine being healthy one day and diagnosed with a serious illness the next, she said.
Cattaneo wants people to understand that the children, adults and families affected by cancer and other life challenges are the same as anyone else, but who now live with a disease that may alter their life forever.
Camp Good Days and Special Times came about in 1979 when founder Gary Mervis' young daughter Teddi was diagnosed with a brain tumor. After a bad prognosis, countless treatments and taking tireless pains to find the best care possible for his daughter, Teddi once asked her father why God was punishing her -- she didn't know any other kids who suffered with cancer. This broke his heart, Cattaneo said, and he set out to share with her that that she was not alone.
What began as a residential camping experience for Teddi and 62 other children with cancer from Upstate New York is now one of the largest organizations of its kind in the country. With headquarters in Rochester, the actual recreational facility, or camp, is located on the shores of Keuka Lake, south of Penn Yan, and serves kids primarily from Syracuse, Buffalo and Rochester. It has symbolized a safe haven for thousands of children, and adults, since its inception.
"We started as a camp just for kids with cancer," Cattaneo said. "In 28 years, it has evolved dramatically."
To be eligible for the cancer programs, a person is either currently experiencing cancer or once had cancer, or an immediate family member currently has or once had cancer. The adult programs are independent of the children's.