I was a camper at the 7W Ranch in January of 2017 and returned in February of 2019 as a volunteer. It was surreal going back to Epic after what was a life- changing visit as a camper.
As everyone poured into the lodge on Sunday evening, I could feel a lot of nervous tension. I’m sure the campers were thinking, like I had, This place is beautiful, but what did I sign up for? After dinner everyone gathered around for the campfire in the lodge. Wingman asked everyone to introduce themselves and if comfortable tell a little bit about their diagnosis. From the start I could tell that everyone was here to connect with fellow cancer survivors and they were not afraid to share their stories. And the stories were devastating to me! I kept thinking, How do they make it through such difficult times and have the courage to take a chance at coming to Epic? Tears were shed, but I could tell that many had taken the first step of the week.
Being a volunteer is a lot of work. I expected that, and I was not disappointed! My main duty was working in the kitchen, which means I needed to be the first up to get the all-important coffee going and start prepping breakfast. Momma Lou does not skimp on quality and almost all of the food is made from scratch. If you are not careful, which takes a lot of self-control, you will gain the “camp 10”!
After breakfast were the small group discussions. Volunteers split up to participate in the small groups. We are there to support the campers, but in small groups we are survivors, too. I helped lead the discussions, which also meant sharing my story. Small groups are a very emotional experience, and as the week went on, we became more open and connected, and I let my guard down also. I wanted to help, that’s what I was there for, but I still need help, too. I found my cancer journey to be full of trauma and self-doubt, and being able to share my feelings with those who have been there really helps. In the end, we all helped each other.
Next up is activities—snowshoeing, sledding, cross country skiing, and more. As the campers got involved in activities, I could see the first-day tension ease. For some it was replaced by tension over the activities. Many have not participated in much for a while and wondered, Can I make it? Will I hurt myself or, worse, will I embarrass myself? But little by little, with a lot of encouragement, small victories were won. And the bonding process continued.
There is not a lot of down time for volunteers. We were pretty much going from before campers get to the lodge until after dinner cleanup. Things wind down about 8 to 9 p.m., and if we were not too tired, we played a game or just visited with everyone.
After a couple days I started to see a change in the campers. They started to smile more, they started to take more risks, and they definitely started to bond. I saw them realize what I saw when I was a camper: these people get me. I don’t know what it is about survivors; they just seem to be such loving caring people.
Friday is the last full day is the last full day at camp. By now the campers have become a family. At campfire the tears are more intense, but laughter reigns all other times. The feeling of love is all around you, and it is really special.
Then it’s Saturday morning. The campers get to sleep in a little, but this is an intense day for a volunteer. Lots of cleaning and packing to be done. The campers are in full emotional overload. They had an amazing experience that many will never forget.
On Sunday I reflected on the week. What an amazing time. It was different from being a camper, but it was still very emotional. This time I was there to give others that Epic Experience. And in the end they may have helped me as much as I helped them. Isn’t that what it’s all about?