When Nicole Giamanco was a teenager, the likelihood she’d survive into adulthood was grim.
At 14, the Elsberry girl acquired acute leukemia. She spent her high school years enduring chemotherapy and radiation treatments at Cardinal Glennon Children’s hospital.
One of the bright spots was Camp Rainbow, a weeklong summer sleep-over camp at Babler State Park for children with cancer and related blood diseases.
Now 32, she still returns to Camp Rainbow, but not as a camper. Now a pediatric oncologist, she volunteers as a resident camp doctor.
Giamanco’s cancer has been in remission for 17 years.
“Camp Rainbow was a wonderful experience that allows kids with cancer to come out and be normal kids at summer camp,” said Giamanco, who was a counselor and unit head after her camper years. “I can say to the kids that I’ve been through this. I know how it feels. I know it stinks.”
Giamanco is a U.S. Army major now stationed at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
“I knew for a long time this was what I wanted to do with my life,” she said.
Giamanco’s story is one of hundreds related to Camp Rainbow that touch hearts and inspire. This month, the camp celebrated its first 25 years with a weekend of festivities, including an evening at the Magic House in Kirkwood. More than 500 campers, counselors, families, supporters and staff attended.
Among them were Allen Brockman, camp founder and director and chair of the Camp Rainbow Foundation, and his wife, Ronnie Brockman, co-director and vice president of the foundation.
Over the last quarter of a century, Camp Rainbow has provided a free camping experience to 3,271 children. “At the end of camp, every kid has a smile and every counselor is feeling like a millionaire,” Allen Brockman said.
“It’s the greatest feeling. We know we can’t cure a child, but we do know we can improve the quality of a child’s life,” he added. “We try to create an environment so kids can discover how wonderful they are.”
One way the camp does this is by making sure kids feel totally accepted.
“We’re a camp where nobody stares at anyone,” Allen Brockman said. “If you’re bald or have hair or if you had an amputation, you’re still just like everyone else.”
Many former campers return to repay the kindness they experienced. Giamanco has returned for two summers to volunteer as resident camp doctor. She plans to come again next summer. Her sister Kimberly also volunteers.
Another former camper, counselor and cancer survivor is Kara Cissell, 21, who is studying at the University of Missouri-St. Louis to become a pediatric oncology nurse.
“I feel like I really, really want to give back the way people saved my life,” said Cissell, who grew up in Troy, Mo., and was diagnosed in early childhood. “I know what it’s like to be saved, and I want to save a life. Even if it’s just one, it’s worth it.”
Huey Blake had a massive brain tumor at age 4 and after years of treatment is cancer-free. He has been a camper, counselor and staff member at Camp Rainbow for more than 24 years. He also volunteers in the oncology unit at Cardinal Glennon, where he underwent four brain surgeries.
“I entertain the kids when they’re getting treatment,” Blake said. “I do magic shows, puppet shows and tell jokes and sing. Most of the kids who go to the camp are at the hospital and I tell them all about it so they’ll come. I really love it!”
At the reunion, Blake spent time with a special friend he knows from the hospital and camp: Arianna Rose Dougan, 6. Arianna was diagnosed at age 3 with neuroblastoma, a rare cancer originating in nerve tissue or cells.
Allen Brockman said he got the idea for Camp Rainbow when he visited young cancer victims in the hospital.
Eddie Greenhill, a teenager with an amputated leg, “touched my heart,” Brockman said, and they struck up a friendship.
“Eddie relapsed many times and each time he never ever complained,’’ Brockman said. “He was one of my real heroes. I always looked up to him.”
In 1988, 28 seriously and terminally ill children, 28 counselors and 15 staff members showed up for the first session of Camp Rainbow.
“Eddie had a wonderful experience,” Brockman said.
The camp is not without its heartbreaks.
“Some of the kids do pass away, and we always want to remember them ... as part of the Camp Rainbow family,” Brockman said.
Among the campers who didn’t survive their battles with cancer was Greenhill.
Today, the Camp Rainbow Foundation offers four different programs: an overnight camp, a mini day camp (for 4- to 6-year olds ), Camp-In (for patients too sick to leave the hospital) and Teen Camp Rainbow.
Brockman said the camp will continue until there’s a cure for cancer.
For more on the camp, visit camprainbow.com.
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