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'A different world': Camp Rising Sun makes place for kids with cancer

 

Nakeria Burton, 13, and Ellen Taylor, 14, eat watermelon during lunch at Camp Pratt Wednesday. Both girls are campers at Camp Rising Sun, an annual camp for children who have been diagnosed with or are in remission from cancer. The program allows kids to do traditional summer camp activities with others with similar medical experiences. Burton is from Sardis and Taylor is from Olive Branch.

Nakeria Burton, 13, and Ellen Taylor, 14, eat watermelon during lunch at Camp Pratt Wednesday. Both girls are campers at Camp Rising Sun, an annual camp for children who have been diagnosed with or are in remission from cancer. The program allows kids to do traditional summer camp activities with others with similar medical experiences. Burton is from Sardis and Taylor is from Olive Branch. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff

 

Andy and Kristen Miller look out over the campsite at Camp Pratt on Wednesday. The couple from Houston, Texas, are counselors at Camp Rising Sun, a camp for children who have been diagnosed with cancer. Andy attended the camp with a friend with cancer for several years as a child and enjoyed it so much he brought Kristen with him when he returned this year as a counselor. He said Camp Rising Sun is a place where everyone can fit in.

Andy and Kristen Miller look out over the campsite at Camp Pratt on Wednesday. The couple from Houston, Texas, are counselors at Camp Rising Sun, a camp for children who have been diagnosed with cancer. Andy attended the camp with a friend with cancer for several years as a child and enjoyed it so much he brought Kristen with him when he returned this year as a counselor. He said Camp Rising Sun is a place where everyone can fit in.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff

 

Camp Rising Sun campers Olivia West, 9, left, and Keionna Livingston, 9, sing and clap during the camp chant and prayer before lunch in the dining hall Wednesday. Olivia is the daughter of Kristina and Kevin Whitaker of Shannon. Keionna is the daughter of Tiara and Keith Livingston of Memphis, Tennessee.

Camp Rising Sun campers Olivia West, 9, left, and Keionna Livingston, 9, sing and clap during the camp chant and prayer before lunch in the dining hall Wednesday. Olivia is the daughter of Kristina and Kevin Whitaker of Shannon. Keionna is the daughter of Tiara and Keith Livingston of Memphis, Tennessee.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff

 

Skyla Whitaker, 7, left, Kayla Kramer, 12, and Leslie May, 8, hang out together at Camp Rising Sun Wednesday. Skyla is the daughter of Wes Whitaker and Kristina West of Shannon. Kayla is the daughter of Sunshine and John Kramer of Memphis, Tennessee. Leslie May is the daughter of Jamie Cannon and William May of Fayette, Alabama.

Skyla Whitaker, 7, left, Kayla Kramer, 12, and Leslie May, 8, hang out together at Camp Rising Sun Wednesday. Skyla is the daughter of Wes Whitaker and Kristina West of Shannon. Kayla is the daughter of Sunshine and John Kramer of Memphis, Tennessee. Leslie May is the daughter of Jamie Cannon and William May of Fayette, Alabama.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff

 

Allison Kizer

Allison Kizer

 

Fred Kinder

Fred Kinder

 

 

Isabelle Altman

 

 

When Andy Miller was 8 years old, he came home from his first year at Camp Rising Sun, sat on the swingset in his backyard and cried because he had to leave camp. 

 

The Meridian native had attended the camp at Camp Pratt in Lowndes County with a friend who had been diagnosed with cancer. He and the friend had so much fun, they went back every summer until they were 17, and Miller kept attending as a counselor -- even after moving to Houston, Texas. This year, he brought his wife Kristen Miller, who is attending for the first time. 

 

"There's really no other place like this camp," Andy said. "The love that's here is amazing. All the kids, all the counselors, everyone involved are all special."  

 

The camp is specifically for children from Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee who have been diagnosed with or are in remission from cancer. It's just like a regular camp, with the kids trying their hands at archery, horseback riding, water sports and arts and crafts. At night, they stay up giggling and telling stories in their cabins -- and all have the chance to be treated just like any other kid at summer camp, said co-director Allison Kizer. 

 

"They just get to come and be kids and not worry about anything for a week," Kizer said. "Which is very rewarding to us to be able to do that for them." 

 

Andy agreed. 

 

"It's a place for everybody to fit in," he said. "People like my friend, they don't typically fit in in the everyday -- at school or in their neighborhood or with the other kids their age -- so that's one of the reasons this place is so special, that everyone fits in no matter what. That was the biggest thing for him. ... He had other people that were going through the same thing as him."  

 

About 46 campers this year are spending the week at Camp Pratt. Not all of them have been diagnosed with cancer. Like Andy, some of them attend with a close friend or sibling who has been diagnosed.  

 

Nakeria Burton, 13, from Sardis, has attended the last three years with her 15-year-old sister, who learned about the camp at St. Jude Children's Hospital in Memphis. The two have been in the same cabin every year and use the week just to be together with other kids going through the same experiences. 

 

"If it weren't for this camp, me and my sister, we wouldn't be as close as we are right now," Nakeria said. "... We got our bond back." 

 

A handful of the campers this year are first-timers, but most are old friends who come year after year, said Camp Rising Sun board of directors member Fred Kinder.  

 

Seeing old friends -- both campers and counselors -- is one of 14-year-old Ellen Taylor's favorite thing about Camp Rising Sun, which she's attended for the last six years. 

 

"It becomes kind of like you're in a different world," Taylor said of the camp. 

 

"I'm not embarrassed to be a cancer patient," she added. "... But I'm not running around telling everybody. And some people like my friends, if it comes up, they'll get kind of nervous and not want to talk about it." 

 

That's not the case at camp where most of the kids are going through the same thing. That's especially good for kids whose disease is more obvious -- for example, at Camp Pratt, Taylor said, a child in a wheelchair or who has other medical equipment doesn't have to feel self-conscious because there are plenty of other kids in wheelchairs.  

 

"Nobody cares," Taylor said. "They understand." 

 

 

 

Camp Pratt 

 

This year is also the first camp following the sale of Camp Pratt, the 70-acre campsite along the Tombigbee River, from the Frank P. Phillips YMCA to Columbus resident Ron Harper.  

 

YMCA spokespeople previously told The Dispatch it had become more difficult to handle upkeep at the summer camp, along with multiple local Y facilities. Harper bought the property in January and has already begun renovations. 

 

Kizer and Kinder both praised Harper's efforts at the campsite. 

 

"It's like night and day out here," Kinder said. "He's completely redone the kitchen and the mess hall. He's erected a big metal building that's going to be like a game room that will be air conditioned. ... They don't have the doors on that metal building, but the mess hall's up and running. There's beautiful floors, new tables, chairs, (it's freshly) painted. The wheelchair ramp has been redone. I mean, he's really worked hard on this. ...He's even been out here mowing grass. The grounds are impeccable." 

 

Despite ongoing renovations, campers are still enjoying the same activities as every year, Kinder said. Water sports are always popular, but campers also play Laser Tag, go horseback riding and create arts and crafts. This year, for the second year in a row, they'll also compete in Olympic-style games. 

 

When the campers leave at the end of the week, Harper will begin renovating the nine cabins at the campsite. 

 

"We look forward to having a long relationship with him," Kinder said.

 

 

 

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