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Connectors and Connections

by ksmelser_DELETED1635531406

An amazing legacy borne of a father's heartbreak

Tue, May 7th 2019 02:00 pm

Connectors and Connections:

An amazing legacy borne of a father’s heartbreak


by Diane M. Sterrett

In 1979, cancer was the most feared word in the English language. There weren’t as many treatments – or survivors – as there are now. When nine-year-old Elizabeth “Teddi” Mervis was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor, she looked to her father Gary to fix things. After all, he was her dad, that’s what he did, fix things. But this he couldn’t fix. “If I could have traded places with her, I would have done so in a heartbeat,” he said.


He cut back on work and sought to find answers, traveling the country and seeking the best treatments. After a 7-1/2-hour craniotomy, radiation and chemotherapy treatments, she was recuperating at home at getting her school lessons from a tutor. Gary discovered it wasn’t the treatment or even the cancer that bothered her the most, it was the crushing loneliness. He visited the parents of her friends to encourage them to visit and discovered they were afraid to let their children visit, afraid they’d ‘catch’ cancer too. It was 1979 and ideas about cancer were outmoded. The ones who did visit didn’t understand what she was going through. Teddi’s childhood had been stolen and Gary felt helpless.


Then he saw a segment on the Today show about a camp in Michigan, children sitting around a campfire and having fun, just being kids. Kids who had cancer. He knew what he needed to do. He called the reporter to get details and quizzed the camp founder, a physician. Back in New York, he gathered a group of over 100 friends and colleagues who had asked what they could do to help. Finally, he had an answer for them.


“The good Lord put people in my life to help me when I needed it most,” he said. Camp Good Days and Special Times was born, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to providing children like Teddi a residential camping experience to be with others who could truly understand what they were going through. The challenge had begun to find the staff, volunteers and medical personnel, not to mention the supplies and programming, they would need.


That first year they used a private Boys & Girls Club camp and hosted 63 children. The camp had two objectives to start with:

1.    Give the children a chance to just be kids. “Most children with cancer spend more time in a hospital in one year than most adults do in a lifetime – and the camp on the shores of Fourth Lake was as far from a hospital setting as you could get,” Gary explained.

2.    Send them home in the same condition they came in. “We needed to assure their parents their children would be well taken care of, so safety is a top priority.” The camp is ACA accredited, has a well-stocked infirmary, and has MDs and RNs on-site when the children are there.


The goal was to provide campers a safe haven but give them room to breathe away from worried parents, a chance to be kids and not patients. 


In his travels with Teddi to the hospitals, Gary saw other parents struggling with medical debt falling into bankruptcy, so he made another promise. “No one would ever have to pay to come here.” He’s kept that promise, tirelessly recruiting volunteers and fundraising. If they’re not local, all campers have to do is get to one of Camp Good Days’ offices where the bus picks them up. International campers just need to get to the Buffalo airport and the CGD’s bus picks them up.


Camp Good DaysSince this was to be a place to get away, it was important to Gary the camp not have the word ‘cancer’ in its name, hence Camp Good Days and Special Times. The Good Days were the days spent at camp, the Special Times were the memories the campers would take away. The logo, which you can see on banners all over camp, was inspired by Frank Tower, a volunteer who dressed as a clown to brighten spirits. The clown represents camper’s courage, the balloons represent hope and the brick wall represents the challenges they must overcome.


Gary succeeded in creating an oasis in a desert of treatments and pain. Children are active, laughing, swimming, and making new friends who understand their challenges and give them courage. The connections they make here with campers and counselors alike are lifelong friendships, and the hardest day is the day they have to say goodbye.


Today Camp Good Days (CGD) is a $1.3 million-dollar operation on 13 acres on the shores of Keuka Lake in Branchport, NY running from May through October with expanded programming. All of the camps are for children affected by cancer or sickle cell anemia, and Teddi's Team is for children ages 8-12 who have any form of cancer or sickle cell anemia. In addition, they have camps for siblings, for children who have parents undergoing treatment, an international program, and oncology weekend retreats for adults dealing with cancer. Some weeks they’re hosting 100 kids at a time, with a small staff-to-camper ratio averaging 1:3.


Camp founder Gary and Executive Director Wendy Mervis reach out to hospitals and oncology departments to make sure they know about what the camp offers so they can share the information with their patients. To date, they have welcomed 47,800 campers from 22 states and 36 different countries, able to do so through the generosity of individuals, businesses and organizations. Fueled entirely by donations and gifts in kind, everyone pitches in – lifeguards wash windows and office staff choose a week to work at camp. Fundraisers run the gamut from black tie galas to dance marathons to kazoo sales.


The fun connection

The moment you pull up to CGD’s entrance, you know it’s is going to be FUN. From the prancing pony figures at the entrance and the murals painted on building walls by an artist in residence to the brightly colored cabins, picnic tables and even a hot pink lifeguard stand, everything is geared to lift spirits and forget the outside world. It starts with counselors and volunteers who greet each busload of campers with loud cheers, kazoos, sirens and balloons to dispel any sense of sadness. The vibe is open, friendly and welcoming.  


During free time, children choose what they’d like to do. Swimming, canoeing, fishing, arts and crafts, woodworking, drama, drumming sessions, basketball, gaga dodgeball, 9 square…there’s an area for everything and everyone who wants to participate can. Pontoon boats and swim slides at the waterfront await the campers’ excited shouts during all-beach time. There are also structured times for things like archery, talent shows, campfires, princess contests complete with tiaras, and nature hikes. 


“We have a very creative staff, everything is possible here,” says Kira Smelser, Communications Director. “No matter the camper’s limitation, we find a way.”


For more reflective moments, there is an outdoor chapel and each camp session begins with an optional service where campers have a chance to paint a message for a loved one on a stone gathered from the nearby creek.


Stories abound of kindness and courage, such as the one young camper who had lost his leg to cancer and his prosthetic leg was accidentally kicked under his bunk overnight. In the morning he couldn’t find it, but there he was, on time and front and center at the flag-raising, standing on only one leg. His adult cabin counselor, who wore a toupee, took it off that morning and never wore it again saying: “if he doesn’t need a leg, what do I need the toupee for?”


Or the boy from Russia who’d lost an eye to cancer and wore a glass eye which fell out and shattered on the sidewalk. CGD’s nurse took him to a local eye doctor, who fitted him with a new, better glass eye free of charge as well as a set of new eyes to change into as he grew. “We are blessed with a generous community,” Gary said.


Most impressive is the dedication of an army of volunteers, a mix of former campers, professionals who use their vacation time to help, and retirees pursuing their passion who help run activities. Like Jerry Romanowski, who has been helping with the woodworking program for 12 years. Retired from Eastman Kodak, he took a year off and set up his dream hobbyist woodworking shop in his basement at home. After a year, he decided it was time to give back to the community. He’d worked with Scouting for nearly 20 years and enjoyed working with kids. When he drove past Camp Good Days on an errand for his son, he knew that’s where he wanted to be. That summer he volunteered during International Week and for two women’s weekend programs.


“For me, it was an awakening of how things in life we take for granted are meaningless in many ways,” he said. “I get more out of volunteering than the kids do. To see a smile on their faces, to know their mind is occupied, it’s a pleasure to see them doing something and not worrying about the condition they’re facing. We have some children come in with just one arm, and they don’t even think about it, they just do what they can and ask for help if they need it.”


Needing skilled, knowledgeable people to run the shop and be there when tools are in use was a challenge. Jerry and three other volunteers, all over 70, took it upon themselves to keep the program open as much as they could. They now supply all the materials themselves and keep the shop open as many hours as possible.


“It’s a very popular activity. The kids love putting things together, but it’s more than that. When we’re in the shop, they’re learning about tools and safety and wood finishing. It gives them confidence. They enjoy taking their projects home and showing off what they’ve made,” he said.


There are no power tools or anything the campers could hurt themselves on. The adult volunteers cut wood pieces and put them together into kits for birdhouses, stools, bug boxes, keepsake boxes and more. The campers sand, stain or paint, then assemble the kits into finished pieces.


Jerry ran up against three problems: 1. some of the children had a hard time using a screwdriver to assemble their projects; 2. since the shop was no longer open all day the campers had less time to work on them and they had to turn some children away; and 3. some campers had a hard time fitting the bigger projects into their suitcases to fly home.


“I thought, if I could just find a connector so the kids could put the kits together faster, we wouldn’t have to turn anyone away. And if I could find something they could use to put the projects together at camp then take it apart and put it back together at home, that would be even better,” he explained.


The Colonial Connection

As a woodworking hobbyist, Jerry knew of Lamello and their connector products. He shared his challenges and safety concerns with Chris Hofmann at Colonial Saw, Lamello’s U.S. distributor.


“Chris knew exactly what I needed, and he was able to give us the school discount,” Jerry recalled.


Chris recommended the Lamello Clamex P-14 connectors and the Zeta P2, a hand-held power tool to cut the full range of slots for the P-System connector series.  “The P-System connectors allow for easy assembly and disassembly of the projects the campers build so that they easily fit into suitcases for the trip home. The Clamex P-14 has a connecting lever that clamps components together with great force, but requires only minimal effort – perfect especially given the circumstances,” Chris said.


“With the Clamex, all the kids need is an Allen wrench and all they have to do is turn the key. It’s a lot easier and faster than screws and they can’t hurt themselves. I show them once what to do and they get it,” Jerry said. “That connection with Colonial Saw has turned into a wonderful relationship.”


The Lamello connection

When Marco Ress, Lamello’s Area Sales Manager International heard about the project, he knew he wanted to do something special. A cancer survivor himself, he knows what the campers are going through. “It’s personal, but I also like projects where we can help. Not just children in need, but help each other. There are so many things going wrong on this planet, we need to take more care of our neighborhood and of each other.”


He has championed CGD within Lamello and arranged to supply Jerry and CGD with all the connectors and accessories they need.


“It wasn’t even a question when I brought the idea to the company,” he said. “It’s a fourth-generation family-based company and we all look after each other, and the company really supports employees as family when someone is sick or has a problem. Helping Camp Good Days helps demonstrate this idea to employees, that we really are a company with heart. The connectors are such a small thing for us, but it means a great deal to them,” Marco explained. “From a business side, their projects are the perfect way to explain the P-system: easy to use, easy to assemble, easy to flat pack and ship.”


In visiting the camp this summer, Marco was struck by the kids running around, laughing, having fun as well as the counselors and volunteers who used to be campers. It’s a place where everyone in the camp has some connection with cancer, where they can share what’s on their minds and everyone understands, it’s not a taboo.


Marco came up with the perfect analogy for the camp experience. “When they arrive, it’s like they check in to a spaceship. Then they fly to another planet called Camp Good Days, they stay there a week, then they fly back to planet Earth.”


Industry connections

Chris and Marco have championed CGD within the industry as well. Colonial Saw connected with Lamello’s CNC manufacturing partner Komo Machine, Inc. to help cut wood parts for the campers’ kits, and with Universal Forest Products to help supply material.


Komo will cut over a hundred CNC-routed component pieces out of solid pine for the campers’ birdhouse projects live at their booth at the International Woodworking Fair in Atlanta, the largest U.S. woodworking industry trade show. Komo is the U.S. manufacturer of precision computer numerically controlled (CNC) routers and machining centers. In addition to liberating Jerry from his basement shop where he produced the kits, their work will help raise awareness about the camp.


“We’ll be demonstrating the cutting process on our new Flex TT 1005 as well as the use of Lamello fasteners and how to cut parts to be able to use them,” said Jeff Erickson, Komo VP of Sales and Service. “We’re cutting a bunch of material at the trade show to demonstrate our product, so this gives us a chance to use what we cut for a good purpose rather than just discard them. We’re pleased to collaborate with Colonial Saw as we have in the past.”


In addition, United Forest Products will be donating the pine for the projects. “The UFP management teams at Union City, Georgia and the LX Center in Norton Shores, Michigan are gratified to help families during their time of need. We thank the other participants in this project to allow us to be a part of this endeavor,” said Jeff Foley of UFP.


It’s a true collaboration between three companies who joined together to give children the opportunity to regain some of the fun and camp experience that cancer has taken away from them.



The legacy

Gary’s daughter Teddi lost her battle with cancer in 1982, but her legacy lives on for thousands of others. Camp Good Days is a celebration of life with those who appreciate it the most, a place where courage knows no boundaries.