June 6, 2010 3:31:00 AM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
The chance spotting of a small piece of paper on a bulletin board at St. Jude Children''s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., more than 16 years ago first brought Tara Jo Stover into the lives of Camp Rising Sun volunteers. Bonds of friendship and love firmly kept her there.
The Newbern, Tenn., native was a mainstay at the annual camp in Columbus for young people who have been diagnosed with cancer. After years of attending as a camper, she became a counselor, and later camp photographer and videographer.
On Dec. 3, 2009, Tara, 28, passed away with brief warning. Camp Rising Sun counselors and friends will celebrate her life Tuesday with an outdoor chapel dedication and memorial service at 5:30 p.m. on the grounds of Camp Henry Pratt in Lowndes County. Steve Brown, chaplain at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle, will officiate.
Tara''s parents, Vicki and Jerry Stover of Newbern, will bring her ashes to spread at the camp, as their daughter wished.
"Camp Rising Sun meant everything to Tara," her mother said Wednesday by phone. "This was a priority for her; it was always her favorite week of the year."
Susan Faulkner, then of Columbus, helped spearhead the Junior Auxiliary Camp Rising Sun project more 23 years ago and developed a lasting friendship with Tara. The camp is now administered by its own board and volunteers.
"Tara was the epitome of what camp was about," said Faulkner, of Hoover, Ala. "She had been through so many setbacks in her life, but she never lost her sense of optimism and hope for the most normal life possible."
Tara was diagnosed with teratoma tumors in her pelvis area at 10 months old. Hospitals became an all-too-familiar environment for the Stovers. Vicki recalled the long-ago day she and her daughter were in the weight and measurement room at St. Jude.
"I think it was when she was in the fifth grade. ... It was just a little bitty piece of paper up on a bulletin board and had a phone number and some information about camp and kids. We wrote all that down, and I had to call immediately when we got home."
She continued, "Tara''s always been smart, but physically she needed what the campers go there for. And then the friendships she made there are so deep. ... It was just the best week every year; she had to be the first one there on Tuesday and wanted to be the last one to leave on Sunday."
Marian Montgomery was Tara''s counselor for several years. The two became dear friends.
"What I remember was that she was this long, leggy little thing whose exuberance for camp infected everyone. She was an incorrigible flirt and typically had a camp crush," she fondly recalled.
Tara overcame her physical limitations to attend nursing school for three and a half years, earn a bachelor''s degree in psychology from Union University in 2004 and a master''s degree in community counseling from the University of Tennessee-Martin in 2009.
Her heart for giving was evident in volunteer work with groups including Young Life, Life Choices, Transitions and, of course, Camp Rising Sun. She was a counselor for the Tennessee Vocational Rehab Center.
Friends agree. At camp, Tara was good for the spirit, especially when it came to annual talent shows and dances, two of her favorite highlights.
"What I remember most was her unbridled enthusiasm and dedication to camp," said CRS board member and counselor Jarome Kirkland. "She sought out ways to stay connected throughout the year, whether it was communicating by phone, mail or e-mail ... trying to arrange mini vacations and reunions with camp friends."
Outside of camp
Some of those reunions were spent with the Faulkner family, and with Marian.
"We went on a cruise with Tara and her family, and she did not want to miss anything," stated Susan. "She didn''t like to think she was limited at all by her physical body, even though it was a struggle for her to get around sometimes."
In 2004, Tara missed camp because she was in the hospital. Susan and her daughter, Jean, drove to Memphis after camp and shared photos with her.
"She was lying in bed, had almost passed away a few days before ... but she didn''t want to talk about that. She wanted to know every detail of camp -- who did what and who was flirting with whom!" Susan laughed. "She will live on through all the pictures and videos of camp she worked on so hard. And I''m so glad her parents have decided to sprinkle her ashes at camp ... we''ll always have her to remember and smile about."
On the day before Tara''s last, Marian, Jarome and Lisa Cooper drove to see her in the Memphis hospital. They tried to raise their friend''s spirits by performing camp songs and dances, for what would be the last time. Marian would speak at Tara''s service only a few days later.
"Camp is going to be incredibly difficult for a lot of people this year; I''m having a hard time coming to terms with actually being at camp without her," Marian shared.
But Tara''s gift for capturing the Camp Rising Sun experience on film will be part of her lasting legacy. She happily immersed herself in videoing and editing, putting footage to music and distributing a video to every camper.
While Tara will be physically absent from Camp Rising Sun this year, her gifts remain -- optimism, courage and loyalty among them, plus a storehouse of funny stories for friends to treasure.
Tara''s fellow counselors and acquaintances are welcome at the dedication June 8. There will be no overnight supervision, however, to include current campers.
"Bring your favorite Tara stories and wear your favorite camp T-shirt," Marian urged. For more information, e-mail her at [email protected]
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.