TALLADEGA -- This group of adults having fun doing a variety activities may look like any other, but each one has faced a battle with cancer.
“I took a video when we all got together and everyone was dancing and enjoying happy music,” said Louis Josof, an oncology counselor with St. Vincent’s Birmingham. “I showed the video to several people without telling them where it was taken, and they were very surprised to learn that the people were all cancer survivors.”
Camp Bluebird, which is being held at Shocco Springs Baptist Conference Center this week, had its largest number of attendees to date, with 139 campers and 14 staff.
Josof, who helped found the camp for adults in 1985, said cancer changed his life. He had just turned 21 when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease.
“I changed my major to oncology counselor,” he said. “I graduated while working at the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center and got recruited to St. Vincent’s Birmingham to counsel and work with patients and their families. We started support groups and workshops, but there was no structural cancer center at that time.”
Josof also wrote a proposal that led to his becoming the first coordinator for the Bruno Cancer Center at St. Vincent’s.
“I was doing a workshop one day about the different aspects of cancer and someone asked where they would apply that knowledge,” he said. “I jokingly said, ‘What? Do you want me to take you to camp?’”
Josof said the idea for an adult cancer camp was born from that comment. While fundraising, a hospital volunteer suggested presenting the idea to The Telephone Pioneers for funding.
“They raise money all year and give back to the community,” he said. “They funded the first camp. The Telephone Pioneers also made bluebird houses as a major project, and that’s how we got our name. We also make bluebird houses at camp, which each camper takes home.”
Camp Bluebird Director Katherine Puckett said when she took the job seven years ago there were 13 campers and five staff.
“We have 48 new campers this year,” she said. “Camp is a complete envelope of love.”
Puckett said attending the camp, which has been held in various locations over its 29-year existence, is free.
“You must be 18 years or older and been diagnosed with cancer to come,” she said. “St. Vincent’s Foundation funds it along with donations. You don’t have to be a patient of St. Vincent’s or even from this state. And you can also volunteer even if you haven’t been diagnosed with cancer.”
Puckett said the three-day, two-night camp provides everything for campers.
“We provide transportation, lodging, food, a variety of activities, fun speakers for entertainment and more,” she said. “There are no rules. The campers can do whatever activities they want. It is a time to relax.”
Puckett said camp begins with the campers writing down worries and tying them to balloons which are released.
“Camp Bluebird is a time for caring and sharing,” she said. “We want these people to come here and get away from the stresses of being around people who don’t have cancer. They don’t have to be strong for their caregivers. The balloon release lets them release those worries which are gone for the duration of camp. They give their worries to God, so to speak.”
Kelly Reeves of Shelby County said she is a survivor of both breast cancer and melanoma.
“I am six years out now,” she said. “They thought it had come back, but after testing I got the all-clear last week.”
Reeves said she has not missed attending a camp since she first came after her diagnosis.
“It’s a priority,” she said. “After you’ve had cancer treatment it’s a different way of life. You’ll never be the same.”
Reeves said camp is a good place to celebrate and support others.
“Last but not least is to laugh, because we laugh a lot,” she said.
Reeves said rock painting was the craft offered at this camp.
“Several of us decided to spend more time painting rocks and visiting,” she said. “I did four rocks. One is pink with pink ribbons for breast cancer. I did a purple one for pancreatic cancer in honor of my mom who died from that about 10 years ago. I may give it to my dad for his garden or deck. I did a turquoise rock with ‘Peace’ on it. Peace is a very strong inspirational word, especially after the good news I got about still being cancer-free. The fourth rock is green with ‘Barn life’ on it for my daughter, Kat, who does rodeos.”
Josof said Camp Bluebird incorporates fun for adults during and after their cancer treatments.
“There isn’t much opportunity for fun while dealing with cancer,” he said.
Josof said the idea expanded, and there are now more than 39 Camp Bluebirds in 25 states.
“The beauty of this is when they are here, their wellness improves,” she said. “They each want to be the ‘well-est’ of everybody. My favorite aspect of this whole scenario is that we know many of the campers have physical limitations, but at camp each activity is optional. They can just sit if they want, but we’ve found they want to do every activity. And their families are surprised at what they did at camp.”
Josof said this contributes to wellness and healing.
“It’s a great balance for everybody, both campers and caregivers,” he said. “They both get to take a break and have fun. To me, that’s one of the miracles of Camp Bluebird.”