| Savannah Morning News
Clara Italiano of Pooler was 5 in 2017 when she was diagnosed with leukemia. Her mother, Karla, described the first few months of treatment as “horrible,” especially when little Clara was hospitalized with an infection and was intubated.
By the fall of 2017 she had improved and was excited to go with her parents, her twin and her older sister to family camp at Camp Sunshine for children and teenagers with cancer.
Camp Sunshine “gave us a chance to make memories and to let (Clara) be a normal kid,” Karla Italiano recalled. Camp was such a hit that Clara signed up the following two years.
In 2020, however, COVID struck and Camp Sunshine went virtual.
“Virtual is great,” said Karla Italiano, adding, “But Clara really misses going in person” because of the friends she made and the activities in which she participated. To try to make life as normal as possible for Clara, her mother has enrolled her in piano lessons, horseback riding and basketball.
Prior to the COVID pandemic, children and teens with cancer or chronic illnesses could spend a week at summer camp escaping the real world with others who knew exactly what they experience every day.
More: Students have until Wednesday to join Savannah-Chatham cohort model
But, starting last year, camps such as Camp Sunshine, Camp Kudzu (diabetes) and Camp New Hope (sickle cell disease) were forced to cancel physical sessions in lieu of virtual platforms. Sickle cell is an inherited red blood disorder that affects mostly African-Americans.
Like many other groups and organizations, camps began a new normal that may or may not continue this summer depending on COVID numbers.
Meanwhile, some camps are getting a jump on sessions by scheduling Zoom programs throughout the year.
Camp Sunshine conducts year-round virtual camp weekends, according to Stephanie Irwin, Savannah program manager for the camp. A virtual family camp weekend for families of children with cancer will be held March 10-20, she said.
“For these programs, we ship ‘camp-in-a-box’ packages to our campers, so they have the supplies needed to participate in our camp activities.” Irwin explained.
“In addition to these programs, we have ongoing virtual bingo nights for families, mystery nights, trivia, etc.,” she added. “We are trying to engage the families as much as we can virtually, during this pandemic. It is all about continuing to provide that community of support, especially during these times when we are not seeing each other in person.”
Also in March is Mystery Night on March 4; Bingo Night April 19, Trivia Night April 29, Virtual Hospital Camp activities at Memorial the first week of May and more camps to be scheduled.
Like other camps, Camp Kudzu has faced numerous challenges reaching out to children and teens with diabetes Type I during the COVID pandemic.
However, Kat Shreve, who is the camp’s associate executive director, said she and her staff have managed to offer a variety of virtual activities that are continuing to help children and teens with diabetes cope with and manage the disease.
“Diabetes is a very isolating disease because only 1 in 500 kids are diagnosed with it,” she said. “We pumped the brakes on (sleep-away camps) on March 13, 2020, and started with our virtual programs. Now we’re doing that dance just like everybody else.”
Since COVID struck, virtual activities from Camp Kudzu have included a variety of programs, including a magic show with a scavenger hunt, teen nights and family camps, she said.
In the greater Coastal Empire, which includes the Savannah area, Kudzu day camps started off “slowly” following Center for Disease Control & Prevention COVID protocols and have featured surf lessons, sea kayaking and other programs for some 20 to 30 campers, Shreve said. Normally, 20 to 30 campers from the Savannah area participate in overnight camping, she added.
To assist with educational activities, the One Hundred Children’s Foundation presented Camp Kudzu with a $25,000 educational grant in October 2020.
Camp New Hope
Additionally, Camp New Hope for children and teens with sickle cell disease also was a recipient of a $12,600 grant from the One Hundred Children’s Foundation.
Hopefully, children with sickle cell disease can attend a week-long summer session at Camp New Hope at Rock Eagle near Eatonton.
Virtual camp last year was a “new experience for everyone,” said Kadeem Harrison, camp coordinator for Camp New Hope. Normally, the physical camp experience includes 115 to 125 children, ages 7 to 17.
Harrison is optimistic that physical camp — scheduled July 18-24 — will go on as planned. “But if the numbers keep going up, we’ll do things virtually,” she said.
• Camp Sunshine: 404-216-2158, mycampsunshine.com; Stephanie Irwin, Savannah program manager; Savannah contact Suzanne Ansley, Savannah Contact
• Camp Kudzu: [email protected], 912-244-4101, campkudzu.org; Cyndi Satlow, community outreach coordinator Savannah
• Camp New Hope: [email protected]; Camp Coordinator Kadeem Harrison