As the doors open to the Four Seasons in Downtown Chicago, friendly volunteers are waiting to greet you like flight attendants in preparation for a flight. You are taken up in an elevator to an elegant staircase, and the sounds of a foreign melody dance in your ears. As you walk up the grand staircase, men dressed in traditional clothing smile while playing the instruments and singing the songs of Argentina. You have taken off and left behind the sounds of taxi cabs and tourists walking around Water Tower Place. Your destination: Argentina.
Children’s Oncology Services hosted FLIGHT Gala on Nov. 13 with a mission to bring more children into their programs, such as One Step Camp. The evening included a silent auction, followed by cocktails and hors d’oeuvres and a delectable Argentinian inspired dinner, as well as awards and unforgettable stories from actual campers.
This is not the only time that Children’s Oncology Services transports people to a place much different than their own mundane world. One Step Summer Camp, located on Lake Geneva in Williams Bay Wisconsin, takes children with cancer away from their world of treatments and hospital visits and brings them to a place where they can forget their sickness and simply enjoy summer camp as kids.
Hailey Danisewicz went to her first One Step program when she was 13. She was hesitant to go, because she had not been away from her parents the entire year that she was sick. But without it, she most likely wouldn’t be on her way to ski in Brazil for the 2016 Paralympic Games.
“Within the first two days, I was meeting people that I felt like I had known my whole life,” Danisewicz said. “I knew right away that this would be a part of my life forever.”
Despite learning that she would have to lose her leg due to her illness, she continued to participate in One Step’s Utah Ski program. After seven years as a camper, Danisewicz has been a counselor for close to four years now. In 2016, she will represent team USA at the Paralympic Games in Brazil.
Another camper who transitioned into a counselor is Colleen McGrath. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at age 14 and asked to quit chemotherapy. The only way her doctors would sign off on it was if she agreed to attend One Step Camp. She did not want to go.
“It sounded like it was going to be a bunch of sick kids. I was picturing a hospital setting, and I didn’t know how that could make me happy,” McGrath said.
She had never seen a cancer survivor before. Her only experience with cancer was her mom dying from the disease right before her diagnosis. She had lost hope, and her dad forcing her to go to camp was the best thing that ever happened to her.
“No matter what they told me, I just didn’t really think I would survive. But to see hundreds of kids that are happy, having the times of their lives and facing challenges I was never going to have to face with their treatments and tumors, it was just a real light,” McGrath said. “It became a family to me, my home, my identity. It’s the best place on earth.”
One Step Summer Camp may not be a hospital, but they still have a way of treating children.
“We have a treatment that cannot be bought,” McGrath said. “We can treat the spirit, and if we treat the spirit, these kids will want to fight the disease.”
Attendees of the event are happy to donate to the cause, especially Sarah Ehrhardt and her husband Christopher Johnson, who recently had a cancer scare with their child.
“For a second we thought: ‘We are those parents who have a cancer child,’” Johnson said. “How awful. It’s the worst, scary feeling, and you feel like [you] would just rather die than have [your] kid go through this.”
At the end of the night, when you descend from the dancing, storytelling and exotic food, you may not be able to bring back a piece of Argentina with you, but you will be sure to take a piece of Children’s Oncology and One Step Summer Camp with you forever.