When the Mystery Machine (famed ride of the Scooby Doo Gang) made a surprise visit to the Barbour County Fair, it marked not only the 30th anniversary of Special Love Inc., but a homecoming of sorts for the organization's chief executive officer, Dave Smith.
Smith was born and raised in Philippi. He was a rising sophomore at Alderson-Broaddus College in 1982 when Special Love founders Tom and Sheila Baker of Winchester, Va., came up with the idea of offering a traditional camp experience to children with cancer and their families in the Mid-Atlantic area.
The Bakers had lost a daughter to cancer in 1976, after a year of treatments for lymphoma, a soft-tissue cancer, at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md. They made an unscheduled visit to the Northern Virginia 4-H Center in Front Royal, Va. There they met with the center's director, John Dooley, who previously worked at A-B in a variety of roles, including sports information and alumni relations.
Special Love Inc. hosts a range of programs for cancer patients, including Camp Fantastic, which gives children a break from their health challenges. This year’s Camp Fantastic celebrated its 30th anniversary with a record-breaking 112 campers and nearly 100 paid staff. It featured traditional 4-H camp activities such as canoeing, horseback riding, crafts and campfires, plus extras such as a rock concert, hot air balloon rides and a commemorative tree planting.
The Bakers, Dooley and Smith conducted an impromptu brainstorming meeting, from which the seeds of Special Love's first program were planted.
That program was a weeklong adventure called Camp Fantastic, which gives young cancer patients a break from their health challenges. The hallmark program has expanded to more than a dozen other programs for patients, parents and siblings.
This year's Camp Fantastic celebrated its 30th anniversary with a record-breaking 112 campers and nearly 100 paid staff. It featured traditional 4-H camp activities such as canoeing, crafts and campfires, plus special extras such as a rock concert, hot air balloon rides and a commemorative tree planting attended by several members of the original 1983 session of Camp Fantastic. Dooley, now the CEO of the Virginia Tech Foundation, even made a guest appearance at the closing banquet.
"Camp Fantastic was always meant to give these special kids a chance to get away from their cancer experience for a little while," Smith said. "But it's amazing to see how much Special Love has grown into a community of support for the entire family. Tom Baker always said, 'When a child gets cancer, the entire family gets cancer,' and now we can offer support to every member of the family.
"The mission of all our programs is two-fold: to give young cancer patients the feeling that they're not alone or different because of their experience, and to make them feel special and connected to other kids with cancer."
Medical staffing, coordinated by the National Cancer Institutes, provides care as needed at Camp Fantastic. Approximately 40 percent of the campers were still on treatment and some required chemotherapy, blood counts, routine medications and monitoring throughout the week. Campers arrived in Front Royal, where they were joined by a convoy made up of Harley-Davidson motorcycles and a police escort, which led them to the 4-H Center.
In addition to the resident program and medical staff, hundreds of volunteers from the surrounding community and as far away as Olney, Md., provide on-site leadership and care.
Since Special Love's first Camp Fantastic in 1983, childhood cancer survival rates have risen by nearly one-third due, mostly because of advances in surgical, radiological and chemical therapies, organizers said. Many of the children of Camp Fantastic 2012 will bear little resemblance to the children who first visited 30 years ago. Still, they live with the same anxiety and stress that their diagnosis and the rigors of treatment can cause. Camp Fantastic is designed to help reduce those fears and instill hope and optimism.
More information is available by calling 888-930-2707 or visiting www.speciallove.org.