Boarding an El Al flight to Cyprus, joining the Zichron Menachem (ZM) Chanukah camp for children with cancer, my experience was as “green” as my green ZM fleece. I had never spent any time with children with cancer. My usual response to hearing of a child with cancer was an automatic emotional block; impossible to imagine a smiling face, to even fathom positive possibility was a huge stretch for me.
As a psychologist, I was invited to join the group of 120 children with cancer who were healthy and strong enough to receive permission from their oncologists to travel to Cyprus and participate in ZM’s five day Chanukah camp. Miri and Chaim Erantal, who founded Zichron Menachem after losing their son Menachem to Leukemia when he was 14 years old, have run almost 90 sleep away camps for children with cancer. Saba Chaim and Savta Miri explain that once someone in the family had been diagnosed with cancer, the whole family has been diagnosed and has cancer. The sleep away camps are not only for the children with cancer but also for the families who love them. In this case, over 700 people received from the camp time to reclaim their routines and reconnect with their other children, a brief respite from hospital stays and doctor’s appointments. Many of the children were only released from hospital units for the five days of camp, needing to immediately return to the hospital for continued treatments.
Zichron Menachem travels with a full staff of doctors and nurses, technical staff and tens of thousands of dollars of medical equipment and medications. In the hotel a suite was transformed into a makeshift emergency and treatment room. No less important ZM travels with an industrial falafel fryer, cotton candy machine, popcorn poppers, waffle makers, french fry chipsters, and professional music sound systems that ensures a party celebration wherever we were. At every waking moment, in addition to the packed daily schedule of activities, counselors donned funny hats, drummed darbukas, pulled magic card tricks out of their sleeves, and engaged in endless games of Taki. Another constant were the ZM camp cheers, bus cheers, and, surprising to me, creative humorous cheers for each hospital pediatric cancer unit boasting which hospital was the best to be in. Every opportunity to normalize the situation and create happiness was taken.
Each day was logistically planned around rain and wind, factors that become more relevant when you are creating a healthy environment for children who struggle to tolerate temperature fluctuations. Activities were chosen to give kids freedom to move and experience independence: Kart racing around a race track, trackteroning on the beach, smashing plates in a traditional Cypriot tavern, a toy store shopping spree with a 20 Euro gift card.
Photographers and videographers captured the hundreds of happy smiling moments. In my mind, many days after I am home, I can still see the improved energy of the children and the effervescent joy that the counselors created. ZM Chanukah camp gave me five days of laughing, singing, cheering, dancing, hugging, shoulder rides, caring for others, and focusing on what is good for the soul.
The first few days of camp, I wondered whether someone sick should be eating only doughnuts for breakfast, should be up late at night, should not rest? These questions seem silly now. ZM created true healthy living. Non-stop playfulness, emotional and loving connections, and top notch medical safety truly allows for every body and soul to heal. ZM camp is about having fun, not about sickness or cancer.
On the last day we stopped at an amusement park filled with scary rides that twirled and spinned meters high in the air. Within minutes, wigs were collected as the kids handed them over to enjoy the rides. Another new experience for me, I found myself excited and focusing on their smiles, their bald heads noticeable but not important at this moment. I realized my emotional block of not believing sick people can feel happiness and life had lifted. These campers were healing me, making me emotionally healthier. The dream to live happily can overwhelm any other feeling.
Support groups for the older kids, nurses for medication dispensing, doctors for all questions, debriefing sessions for the staff are provided. Saba Chaim and Savta Miri are the watchful eyes to make sure every moment is used wisely. There is no doubt that for Chaim and Miri, every child and family there is like their own.
One day on the bus, horns were distributed, kids were blowing them, and for anybody not in the mood to get a migraine, it would be easy to take charge and enforce a strict rule that no one is allowed to blow horns on the bus. I was on the bus with Chaim, and I enjoyed seeing his acceptance that the children needed to make noise and act out. Chaim’s creativity constantly pushes everyday expectations to be bigger, any step in changing what is expected is a healthy step into healing. We didn’t discuss it, but I could see from his posture and grin, that while the squeaky noises were annoying him, the children’s happiness and freedom was music to his ears.
A new campaign for Zichron Menachem is #741. Seven braids are needed to make one wig. Zichron Menachem hires professional wig makers, and anyone who suffers from hair loss through cancer treatment can have a private consultation to help create their personal wig.
Chanukah camp is a life-changing opportunity for the children and staff to experience first hand miracles. Placing no limits on what can be created and what can be believed is the inherent theme. Seeing the Chanukah lights flickering every night, I felt the cancer diagnoses around me taking a back seat. I felt the miracle of being in the moment. Truly believing that life is for living and for being happy and feeling connected to others. For this beautiful gift, to believe in the unbelievable, to feel change, to grow and heal, I thank you Zichron Menachem!
(To donate hair, a pony tail needs to be at least 12 inches long and can be sent or dropped off to Zichron Menachem offices. Many salons work with ZM, and will give you a fabulous new look. Feel free to send a note along)