WHAT IS CAMP TRILLIUM?
Camp Trillium is committed to providing meaningful, fun and enriching camping experiences to families impacted by childhood cancer. We are a home away from home, a place where families can come to relax, to share, to have fun and to forget about cancer even if just for a little while.
We are a registered Canadian charity, and all of our programs are free to families. We are generously funded through donations from individuals, service clubs, businesses, and foundations.
WHY DO WE CARE?
Receiving a diagnosis of childhood cancer can change a families’ life forever. Priorities change, family dynamics shift and often times fun is the last thing on anyone’s mind. Even the ordinary parts of a child’s life, like summer camp, can seem like a distant possibility after receiving the diagnosis.
Cancer is unbelievably difficult for each family member. Treatments can last from months to years, keeping one of the parents in the hospital for extended periods of time. Brothers and sisters get separated, while the child with cancer faces a lot of pain and anxiety while going through treatment.
Although there have been many advances in childhood cancer there is still no cure and each year over 950 families in Canada will receive this life changing diagnosis. For some, treatments may take several months, while for others it can be years. For this reason, we continue to provide exceptional camping experiences to support families across Ontario free of charge every year.
Since cancer strikes many children at a very young age, for many of our families, Camp Trillium is the first trip they have ever taken together. Some of our campers are newly diagnosed and on active treatment and some have been in remission for years.
In short, we put fun back into the lives of families impacted by childhood cancer. At Camp Trillium, fun is not just what we do, it’s how we do it.
WHO GOES TO CAMP TRILLIUM?
We recognize that childhood cancer can impact all members of a family. For this reason, Camp Trillium welcomes all family members including kids with and affected by childhood cancer as well as their brothers, sisters and their caregivers.
Families don’t come because they have cancer, they come to forget about cancer, even if just for a little while.
WHEN AND WHERE DO THE PROGRAMS HAPPEN?
We provide year-round camping experiences at two locations Rainbow Lake (Waterford, ON) and at OuR Island (Picton, ON). In addition to this, we also run day-camps in Toronto, Ottawa, Hamilton, London, Kingston, Mississauga, Kitchener & Barrie. We also meet families and children where they are by providing camping activities through our in-clinic program at McMaster.
WHAT MAKES US UNIQUE?
We have over 30+ years of experience supporting families across all stages of their cancer journey. Our 200 acres of land is the ideal setting for skiing, canoeing, fishing, hiking, rope climbing, exploring and much more.
Since inception, we have provided more than 53,000 camping experiences to families across all stages of the cancer journey. Each year we deliver 3,500+ camping experiences through 10 innovative programs, making us the largest provider of cancer camping experiences in Canada.
Additionally, we are fiscally responsible and resourceful. We make the most of donor dollars and use our resources wisely, making the site available for rental opportunities during the year when our signature programs aren’t running.
Last but not least, most of our staff members and volunteers used to be past campers who are committed to the organization.
“Hi, Chris, It’s Dr. McCall. The blood test results are back for Charlie. You were right. He hasn’t had the flu for four weeks. It’s not viral. But you were wrong, too. It’s not mono.”“So what is it?”
“We think it’s leukaemia.”
Imagine getting that phone call after coming home from work. Your four-year-old son has been sick for a month, and every time you take him to the doctor you are told it’s viral, take him home and wait it out. Your two-year-old daughter doesn’t understand why her brother is still sick, and your five-day-old son just got home from the hospital.
I got that phone call, and it changed my family’s life forever. Charlie was diagnosed with ALL just after his fourth birthday. My application to law school was half completed, and that’s how it stayed. The next day my wife and I met with the oncologist for an hour – but don’t ask me what she said at that meeting; I don’t remember. Charlie had a bone marrow aspiration that day. That I will never forget, but fortunately he has forgotten it.
The bone marrow aspiration signalled the beginning of three and a half years of what can only be described as hell. That’s how long Charlie had to be subjected to chemotherapy.
The chemo wasn’t the only hardship we had to endure. Our children had been enrolled in full-time daycare since my wife and I both had to work. Group daycare is a wonderful place to pick up germs, and the last place Charlie could be. Over the next three and a half years he would frequently have little or no immune system. What would otherwise be a minor infection could easily turn fatal. We could not afford to drop to one income, so we had to find alternate childcare arrangements.
I can’t tell you how many daycare agencies had room for our three children until they found out that Charlie had leukaemia – then they only had room for the younger two. They wouldn’t take Charlie.
Charlie’s friends couldn’t visit. When they could, they often didn’t. Many people, out of ignorance, were afraid of him. They might get cancer. They might give him something (that fear was often well-founded but not always). He couldn’t do much except endure his treatment.
He lost his hair more than once. The prednisone and decadron he was taking ached his joints and made him round – he looked like Charlie Brown. Wherever he went, people stared. He noticed. How could he not? As they grew older, his brother and sister noticed, too.
My wife was asked, by supposedly educated people, what she did that caused Charlie to get leukaemia. She was told she must’ve done something during the pregnancy – been too close to high-voltage lines, not eaten properly, something.
There was one place, one group of people to whom Charlie wasn’t cancer, not a pariah. One place where he was a child, a friend. That place was and is Camp Trillium. Ignorance has no place there. Prejudice is unknown. Charlie and his siblings were welcomed with open arms – no questions asked. Except, “What would you like to do?”
Trillium volunteers and staff were at the hospital when Charlie was admitted. They were at the clinic when he was. They visited him and his siblings at home and in the community, and they were at camp too. Every single one of them was there only to help Charlie, Jennifer, Steven, my wife and I. They were not only willing to play with Charlie; they went out of their way to do so.
To them, Charlie was not a leper; he was a special friend. He was not avoided; he was sought out.
Through Camp Trillium, Charlie, Jennifer and Steven have got through their battle with cancer – don’t think for a minute that cancer doesn’t affect the entire family – as well-adjusted, happy, confident children. There has also been support from Camp Trillium staff and volunteers for my wife and I, not to mention the strength we have drawn from the other families we met through the programs.
Camp Trillium is responsible for my family having come through our fight against childhood cancer as well as we have.
Who else could have a child looking forward to a visit to the cancer clinic?
The Ecclestone Family
The minute the phone rang, I knew it was not good news. Cancer.
Not a word you associate with a bright, energetic, two-year-old boy. I remember hanging up the phone and doubling over on the front porch in tears. By the time I got to the doctor’s office and received the full report, I had steeled myself for the battle ahead.
Jonah was airlifted from our small town in Northern Ontario to SickKids Hospital, where a battery of tests over a few days revealed a Stage III nephroblastoma (kidney tumour), requiring surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.
They rolled our little boy down the hall in his crib to the operating room, where, for the next eight hours, they performed surgery on his tiny body. That was when the fear hit me.
How could our boy be this sick? How could we not have noticed? What was going to happen to him? Oh, God, what would we do if he…? We were terrified.
We sat in a room for eight hours waiting for news. I still remember the young doctor’s face when he came out. He was smiling. Thank God. They’d removed the entire kidney and the tumour, he told us, and Jonah was doing well.
Months and months of chemotherapy and radiation followed. I won’t go into the details, but it included more than one midnight drive or airlift back to the hospital for fevers, neutropenia, blood transfusions, and other illnesses.
Nothing in the world can prepare you for seeing your child in a giant hospital bed, pale and clammy, hooked up to wires and machines. Nor can anything prepare you for the moment you feel his little body go limp in your arms as the doctors administer drugs to sedate him. Nothing can ready you for the day his hair and eyelashes fall out. Or the ice-cold dread when you realize he has a temperature of 38.5, no immune system, and you’re a four-hour drive from the only clinic that can access his Port-a-Cath to administer the medications he needs. You try to inject normalcy into your life, but it’s impossible.
And in the middle of it all… Camp Trillium.
No words can do it justice. Jonah had been off treatment for a few months the first time we went. His hair had grown back and he was gaining weight. We drove up to those big gates unsure what to expect, and encountered a group of staff, dressed in awesome, silly costumes, with giant smiles on their faces. They greeted us like family and treated both my kids like they were important.
What followed was a week of pure joy. There were campfires and silly songs, canoe rides and hikes, and special friends. We had spent every minute of the last year trying not to think about cancer, trying to be “normal” in the midst of chaos.
Camp Trillium was the first time we were fully able to just be. Jonah was just a kid. I was just a mom. We went swimming and fishing and sailing. We roasted marshmallows and stayed up late playing cards. We met other awesome warrior kids and parents who, without any explanation, just got it. And we got some much-needed quiet time to decompress while special friends cared for our kids with great energy and compassion. We have gone back almost every year since. The kids are old enough to go on their own now. It’s the highlight of their summer.
Jonah turns 11 this year. To look at him, you’d never know he was anything but healthy. He has a scar on his belly from the surgery and some residual clumsiness and fine-motor issues from some of the chemo drugs. Other than that, he’s just a “normal” kid.
We were lucky. He survived.
We’ve met a few families at Camp Trillium who weren’t as lucky. It’s heartbreaking to think of the kids who eventually lost their battles, but when I do, I remember their smiling faces singing silly songs around the campfire at Rainbow Lake. I believe that Camp Trillium brought a unique joy and sense of belonging into their lives when they needed it most. There is no other place in the world like it.
My son Lucas was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in August 2010. He was three. Faced with decisions most parents should never have to make, we embarked on a three-year battle to rid Lucas’ body of cancer. It is heartbreaking to watch your child fight for his life, but you become a fighter yourself. Battling each day to have one more with your son. I became a cancer mom and Lucas a cancer child; we became members of a club that I did not want to be part of.As part of this club, we were told we could apply for Camp Trillium, a camp reserved for kids who had been diagnosed with cancer. Two years into our cancer journey, I finally felt comfortable enough to attend a family camp. As you can imagine, going to a camp with a bag full of chemotherapy and other drugs would be frowned upon but not here. We were welcomed with open arms and given the chance to have a normal life experience. All we wanted was to be normal again.
Approaching [OuR Island] by boat, we spotted a group of people waving. They were dressed up in funny costumes and holding signs with our last name drawn on them. They screamed, “Welcome!”
I looked at Lucas’s face and saw an excitement I’d not seen in a long time. I knew then we were entering a magical place. We did not have to think about cancer for five whole days.
Each child who attends camp is assigned a “special friend,” who sticks with him from morning until bedtime. They do activities. Fishing, swimming, arts and crafts, canoeing, rock climbing, making a carousel for stuffed animals to zip line from the bell tower to the staff residence, unicorn hunting (yes, unicorn hunting), and chasing a shadow around the island for three hours.
By “shadow,” I mean a special friend dressed head-to-toe in a black leotard, running around the island trying not to get caught by a bunch of screaming children. The children get creative and try to set traps for the shadow. Whatever the kids can imagine, they do it. I’ve even seen a special friend change into her bathing suit so the kids could paint her body every colour of the rainbow — just because a kid thought it would be a fun thing to do.
Parents get a camp experience, too. We come together to play games or be a ear to a parent who needs to talk to someone who understands what the other is going through. We can take a nap if we need the rest or spend some time with a significant other catching up on each other’s lives because one person has been living at the hospital with a sick child and the other is working to make sure the bills are still paid. No cooking or cleaning at camp. It’s all provided for us.
Every evening at campfire we come together for a show put on by the special friends. It includes a sketch of some sort, the singing of silly songs, and we always finish with the campfire song.
It’s an anthem written especially for Camp Trillium. The lyrics are special to each camper. The first time I heard the song I cried as I heard the words: “This world is full of beauty, but sometimes it can bring us pain / So if you need someone to lean on, you can call my name.”
Saying tearful goodbyes to friends new and old, we leave the island always looking forward to our next visit. When the boat pulls away from the dock, we see a huge splash. Every special friend jumps into the lake, swimming, trying to get us to stay. The kids’ eyes light up one last time with anticipation that they might get to stay on the island if their special friends reach the boat in time. They are never fast enough to catch us.