CRYSTAL SPRINGS —When Dan Kitchens was three years old, he was diagnosed with a Wilms’ tumor or nephroblastoma, a kidney cancer that primarily affects kids. While Dan’s surgical scars have long healed and his hair grown back, his bout with cancer forever changed the Kitchens family — eventually setting them on an ambitious campaign to improve the lives of other Mississippi families.
When Dan was nine years old, Camp Rainbow hosted Mississippi’s first camp for children with cancer at Strong River Campgrounds in Simpson County, and Dan was among the first campers. Camp Rainbow was founded by the American Cancer Society and doctors from the University of Mississippi Medical Center, but the cancer society has since stopped sponsoring summer camps, leaving Camp Rainbow under the direction of the medical center.
“They offered to start a camp for children with cancer, so Dan went in that first group,” says Mary Kitchens, Dan’s mother. “He’s still going. He’s 42, almost 43. He goes to camp as a counselor and director every summer.”
In 1998, Dan’s brothers Matt and John joined him at Camp Rainbow as counselors.
“Watching the kids, a lot of them grow up at camp, and the relationships that they have with one another and with us, it’s just really been something special and something I look forward to every year,” said Matt Kitchens.
The Kitchens wouldn’t miss a summer at Camp Rainbow, but others have because the camp has moved six times since it opened in 1984.
“It’s hard for parents to let go of their sick child, let them go and entrust them to people, then you say, ‘We’ve got to go to a new place,’” Mary Kitchens said. “Some of them have to wait a year before they let their kids go back. They want to make sure the place proves to be safe and everything.”
Camps intended for children or adults with special needs or illnesses have to lease existing facilities. Typically, those facilities were not built to accommodate campers with special needs. Ramps have to be added to some cabins, regular cabins become make-shift infirmaries and sometimes nurses have to use coolers to store medicine.
“If the kids need to be held up because they can’t stand or somebody has to hold on to them in the shower, they do it outside in the kiddie pool. They keep their bathing suits on, but they put them outside to bathe them, because two people can’t fit in the shower,” said Mary Kitchens. “They bring portable toilets, but they have to set them up in the cabin.
“There goes modesty. A lot of these kids may be physically handicapped, but their minds are very sharp. To put them through that is just so unfair and so unnecessary,” she said.
This is why in 2009 the family established the Mississippi’s Toughest Kids Foundation with the goal of creating a permanent facility designed specifically for children who are physically handicapped. The camp will be built near Crystal Springs, where all the Kitchens live, and Mary Kitchens is the foundation’s executive director.
“It needed to be somewhere centrally located in the state to make it accessible for campers from all over the state,” said John Kitchens. “Also, centrally located because of the location of the hospital, and good access in the event that a child needs to get back to Blair Batson (Children’s Hospital in Jackson). It’s a short drive to get back there.”
The $16.5 million Camp Kamassa facility will sit on 326 acres of undeveloped land, most of which is already paid for, west of Crystal Springs near Calling Panther Lake. The camp isn’t projected to be completed until 2020, and family members said they actually are pleased that initial plans for opening a few years ago fell through.
“I had hoped to have this facility up and running five years ago, six years ago, but thankfully we didn’t,” said Mary Kitchens. “We would’ve made a lot of mistakes. We’ve learned so much about what to do, and what not to do, and how to do it. I’m very thankful that it’s taken a while.”
So far, people from 31 states, including Alaska, have donated money to help cover the costs of building the camp.
Sally Smith, a Crystal Springs resident who has 13-year-old twins, both of whom are on the autism spectrum, is excited for a facility that can provide the children with an accommodating environment. Through tears, Smith said this type of facility is long overdue in the state.
“It means a lot to know that my kids will have somewhere to go,” said Smith. “I feel like sometimes my kids are lonely, because they don’t have people that they can interact with and it’s very disheartening that they don’t have any peers that they can hang out with.
“If we had this place, it could open up a world for them with people like them, because a lot of times other than at school they don’t have anybody,” Smith said. “You know, they get tired of being with mother.”
Martie Kwansy of Joni and Friends Jackson, a Christian ministry for families with disabilities, has taken a caravan of families to a retreat at Camp McDowell in Nauvoo, Ala., just outside the city of Jasper.
“It’s hard, as you can imagine,” she said. “Some of our families, just to upload them it takes 45 minutes to an hour for all the equipment necessary. It’s hard for a family to make that four-hour trek.
“There are very few sites that can accommodate to this level,” Kwansy said. “Ever since the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), it’s gotten a whole lot better, but we have a long way to go still. We’re getting there though. It’s not all doom and gloom.”
Cancer survivor Dan Kitchens knows how critical these camps and retreats are.
“Just being around other children with the same experience and not being unusual,” he said. “Not being different and just being like everyone else.”