GRETNA, Nebraska — A smiling blond-haired boy slid down an inflatable water slide and sprayed Anisa Hoie as he flew by.
“That’s great,” Hoie called out to him. “Awesome.”
Hoie loves spotting big smiles at Camp CoHoLo, a summer camp for kids with cancer. The camp near Gretna marked its 32nd year this summer and is led entirely by a crew of more than 80 volunteers like Hoie, who has served at CoHoLo since nearly the beginning.
The goal of the overnight camp is to let kids experience the fun of summer camp — everything from songs by the campfire to zip lines — regardless of their illness.
Hoie and many other volunteers are in health care careers so they can tackle campers’ medical needs, whether it’s administering intravenous painkillers, giving shots to boost immunity or drawing blood samples to make sure cell counts are at the right levels.
The camp draws kids in wheelchairs and those who use walkers. Some have lost their hair because of chemo treatments. The camp sometimes has kids in hospice.
Hoie, an oncology nurse at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center, tells parents that if they want their child to attend the camp, the medical volunteers will find a way to make it happen. Volunteers include nurses, doctors, pharmacists and students in health care fields.
Six-year-old Owen Williams played laser tag, slid down the water slide and tackled other activities at camp this week. Just two days before camp started, he had an overnight stay at Children’s for a chemo treatment for the brain tumor he was diagnosed with last summer.
His mom, Stephanie Dye of Papillion, said she remembers telling camp leaders about the
medical care he would need and they told her no problem.
“You don’t have to explain all the what-ifs,” she said. “They know all the what-ifs. They kept saying, ‘We can handle that.’ ”
While at camp, Owen was fed through a tube in his stomach and received shots that boosted his immune system. He also received five oral medications tied to his treatment.
Dye said that for her and her husband, Brendan Williams, it was hard dropping Owen off at camp last Sunday but they knew he would have a blast and get great care. Some of the nurses who care for him at Children’s volunteer at the camp, so he was around familiar faces.
“It’s so heartwarming and moving that this group is offering that experience for my child,” she said.
The zip line is one of the most popular activities at camp, and 11-year-old Rachel Neeley gave it a try this week. She let out a big “whoop” as she zipped 30 feet above the ground from one platform to the next.
Earlier she climbed a three-story pole and then edged her feet across a cable while holding on to another cable above her head, all while strapped to a harness and wearing a white helmet.
“It was challenging,” she said.
Jeff Neeley, her dad, said she was scared and tentative when she arrived at camp for the first time when she was 6. She had gone through several years of treatments for tumors on her kidneys and the experience rattled her confidence.
But even that first year she quickly discovered that camp was a place where she could have fun and be around other kids who have gone through similar experiences.
Rachel, who’s now considered cured, can’t wait for July to roll around each year so she can get back to camp.
“It’s been a great therapy for her,” her dad said.
The camp has grown significantly since the first summer more than three decades ago.
About 20 kids attended the first camp in 1985 and this summer more than 150 participated in the two sessions.
The first session started last Sunday and ran three nights and was for children ages 6 through 11. The second four-night session concludes this weekend and was for ages 12 through 17.
The camp draws kids from throughout Nebraska and western Iowa. Most of the children who attend are undergoing treatment and are patients at Children’s or the Nebraska Medical Center. The camp is also open to kids who are now cancer-free.
The camp is at the Nebraska 4-H Center on the grounds of Schramm Park State Recreation Area near Gretna and is run by the nonprofit organization Children’s Cancer Camps of Nebraska-Camp CoHoLo.
Hoie said the camp has always been funded through private donations and for the first 10 years was funded entirely by the Variety Clubs of Nebraska, a nonprofit service organization.
Now the camp is funded through a mix of donations from individuals, corporations and other sources. Because of the donations, parents pay only a $15 fee for camp, Hoie said. The actual cost per child is about $500.
Children’s Hospital also supports the camp financially and by providing medical equipment and supplies, Hoie said.
Some of the volunteers are former campers, such as Treasure Rasmussen. She began attending the camp as a 12-year-old undergoing treatment for a brain tumor.
Now she’s 25 and is glad she can give back. She hopes campers draw strength by knowing she’s a cancer survivor.
“(I) know exactly what they are going through,” she said.
Hoie’s long service at the camp started in 1986 during the camp’s second summer. Some of the patients she worked with at Children’s were attending the camp and Hoie felt called to volunteer.
She met her husband, Eric, at the camp when they were both volunteers. He had just finished pharmacy school at the time and served as a counselor for many years and now serves on the camp’s board.
The couple have four adult children and all have assisted with the camp over the years.
Hoie said the camp has many longtime volunteers because the experience is so rewarding.
On a sunny morning this week, Hoie walked through a grassy area where kids were playing lawn games such as ladder ball.
As Hoie talked with a visitor, a little girl with braided hair dashed across the grass, opened her arms and hugged her.