Free summer camp makes memories for children with cancer and their siblings

For many children battling cancer, hearing “no” is a norm. No soccer or dance or playground fun with others — activities that can harm an already fragile body. But for six weeks every summer, at a camp designed to run on “yes,” children get to have fun in a safe environment, made just for them.

Horizon Day Camp is the only free day camp for 3 ½ to 16 year olds with pediatric cancer and their siblings. The camp opened in 2022, borne of a partnership between Pozez JCC and Sunrise Association Day Camps, which has been running camps and other programs for children with cancer since 2006.

“For our JCC, this is a major social impact program that fills a gap and a need for families in the D.C. metro area,” said Jessica Adams, senior director of development.

Because campers are undergoing treatment, they attend as often as they can, whenever they can. Every day of camp is created to stand alone, ensuring children never feel as if they missed something.

Camp Director Joellen Kriss-Broubalow said Horizon Day Camp is where “every kid can be a kid.” Many of her campers, siblings included, have been forced to grow up too soon. Camp is an opportunity for them to be their own person, outside of the bubble that cancer so often silos them into. 

“We are a camp for kids with cancer, but we are not a cancer camp,” Kriss-Broubalow said. “Cancer is something these kids have, not who they are. We take all of the necessary steps to make sure cancer is not at the center of everything we do.”

And camp starts on the bus, a free service that brings children to and from Pozez JCC. Then comes the best part of camp: activities. Soft sports balls and other adaptive equipment help children fully participate. Some play soccer or take swim lessons. Others make friendship bracelets or do science experiments. 

Specially trained counselors like Bradley Olsen, 18, are there every step of the way. A cancer survivor himself, Olsen pulls from his own experiences to offer hope, compassion and of course, joy.

“Seeing them share laughter, form bonds and create lasting memories is so special,” Olsen said. “Being able to witness these moments and provide a safe, supportive space for them to simply be themselves is truly a gift.”

Alana Cole, another 18-year-old counselor, said, “It’s easy to say that I teach the kids, but in truth, they teach me. The most meaningful part of my work is seeing all of them smile and have fun.”

This June, staff are expecting to welcome their largest group of campers. Horizon Day Camp, which started with 44 children and grew to accomodate nearly 100, already has 48 registrants for this summer. Roughly 20 of them are returning campers.

The driving force: parents know their little ones are in good hands. There is on-site medical support, which includes a team of nurses supervised by a pediatric oncologist. 

With peace of mind, parents can take quiet moments for themselves. Last summer, while their children were at camp, one couple took a vacation day and went to the movies. Another said they finally had time to clean their house, which had been in disarray since their child started cancer treatment.

“I can feel the relief from our parents,” Kriss-Broubalow said. “Everything is being taken care of. Kids are so excited to come to camp every day, and parents haven’t seen their kids this excited in a long time.”

One of those parents is Emily McGilton, whose daughter Brianna has neuroblastoma, a cancer that develops from immature nerve cells. For Brianna, rounds of treatment disrupted her year, pulling her from school and friends. 

Horizon Day Camp was a bright spot.

Brianna, 4, would come home and excitedly recap her days swimming and crafting. Knowing her daughter was having fun, and finding some normalcy in abnormal times, McGilton began to worry less.

“Horizon Day Camp encouraged me to let go a little bit and allow others to help me care for my child,” McGilton said. “I slowly adjusted with the help of her encouraging staff and her big smiles every day at drop off and pick up. She can’t wait to go back.” 

Even though camp is six-weeks long, engagement is year round. Horizon on Wheels brings the magic of camp to children undergoing treatment in hospitals. There are also family fun days, which have included adaptive sports and exclusive museum visits to keep up relationships with camp families. 

The next happening: Horizon Walk. This annual fundraising event, scheduled for April 14, features a 1-mile walk around National Harbor. Attendees include camp families and other members of the community, drawing a crowd of close to 250. 

“When they see you, they knock you over with these huge hugs because they’re so excited to be around camp people again,” Kriss-Broubalow said. “That’s how you know what you’re doing really matters.”

For Kriss-Broubalow, who is a teacher during the school year, camp fills her soul during the summer and all year round.

“Teachers are seed planters. We usually don’t get to see the flowers,” Kriss-Broubalow said. “But at camp, you get to see the flowers. It’s magic.”

You can participate in our annual Horizon Walk by completing this registration form.

Share via:

Related Posts