Camp Good Days and Special Times, started by a man whose daughter had cancer, is celebrating its 30th anniversary.
When Gary Mervis started Camp Good Days and Special Times 30 years ago, he thought there would be a cure for cancer by now.
“That’s one of my biggest frustrations,” said Mervis, now 64. “I truly believed I wouldn’t have to go to any more funerals and watch parents go against the laws of nature and bury their child instead of the way it should be.”
The mission of the camp isn’t to find a cure, it’s to improve the quality of life for children, adults and families whose lives have been touched by cancer and other life challenges. But Mervis, a Pittsford resident, is doing what he can.
On Monday, Mervis and Congressman Eric Massa teamed up to host a cancer summit for the 29th Congressional District at the camp’s recreational facility in Branchport. Attendees included doctors, social workers, psychologists, nurses and people who run support groups.
“With no idea being a bad idea, there’s no limit to what we can accomplish as long as it doesn’t matter who gets the credit,” Mervis said.
On Saturday, the camp is celebrating its 30th anniversary. Over the years the camp has helped 41,000 campers from 25 countries and 22 states.
It all started, though, with Mervis. His youngest daughter, Elizabeth, also known as Teddi, was diagnosed with a brain tumor on April 18, 1979. Mervis has two other children, Todd and Kim.
As the father of a 9-year-old girl, Mervis said, it was the loneliness of feeling like she was the only girl battling childhood cancer that was the hardest part for Teddi, not the surgery, radiation or chemotherapy.
Mervis said Teddi’s classmates wouldn’t visit because their parents didn’t want them exposed to the prospect of Teddi’s death, or they harbored an irrational fear that her illness might somehow rub off on them.
It broke Mervis’ heart.
“I wanted Teddi to realize that she was not alone,” he said. “That there were other children, but in those days there was no programs or places that children with cancer could go to be with others.”
About six months later, Mervis was inspired by a news report about a program for children with cancer called Camp Special Days near Jackson, Mich. By Christmas, he put together a team that would fund and recruit volunteers for an upstate camp near an inlet in the Adirondacks.
Mervis was motivated to open his own camp in the Northeast so Teddi could meet other children going through the same battle. There would be obstacles, Mervis was told, especially finding a doctor who would give up his or her free time to oversee the medical needs of the campers.
Besides, they needed hundreds of volunteer workers and millions of dollars to open the camp.
Because of her father’s determination, Teddi was able to attend the first session of Camp Good Days and Special Times when it opened on Aug. 29, 1980. She was afforded what thousands of children have come to take for granted over the years: the full camp experience.
Teddi died in March 1982, after attending just two sessions at Camp Good Days. But the camp continued.
“It became my memorial to her,” her father said. “It became the only thing that made sense out of something that didn’t make any sense.”
Holding the camp in the Adirondacks was problematic because of the lengthy drive for campers living in western New York, so, in 1982, Mervis moved summer operations to the west shore of Canandaigua Lake at the YWCA Camp Onanda. The camp remained until 1987, when it moved to its current home on Keuka Lake.
In those early years, the camp was a place where children could participate in one- or two-week sessions, free of the worries of painful cancer treatments. The tender young patients were kids again.
Not much has changed. Campers get to, among other things, go hiking, sailing and fishing, play miniature golf, swim, do arts and crafts, and climb on an adventure rope course.
Nowadays, programs are offered for men, women and young adults, as well as family members of those affected by cancer.
Charlotte resident Catina Jelfo, 19, started coming to the camp for the brothers and sisters program when she was 7. Her younger sister Michelle had Drash Syndrome.
“During my sister’s cancer the doctors really didn’t provide any hope for her,” Catina said. “(The camp) gave us the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Now Michelle is 15 and is doing great.
This summer, Catina will be joining the camp’s summer staff.
“I really want to be that person who helps the children now,” she said. “Give them that hope, that light at the end of the tunnel.”
Eric Foster, 24, attended the camp when he was younger and diagnosed with non-hodgkins lymphoma. He is now involved with the young adults program.
“I can talk to other young adults who are going through cancer right now or are in remission and can make a lot of new friends,” Foster said.
Meanwhile, this weekend’s anniversary celebration has extra special significance for Mervis. Saturday would have been Teddi’s 40th birthday.
Country music legend Ronnie Milsap will perform. His song, “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” brought much comfort to Mervis when he first heard it, the night before Teddi underwent surgery all those years ago.
“I bought the tape and for the next two years, 10 months that Teddi battled cancer, I played that song 1,000 times, it was my little respite,” Mervis said.
One of the times it played was at Teddi’s funeral.
It was the first of many funerals Mervis would attend. From June, 2008 through the end of May, 2009, he went to the funerals of nine campers. Last week, he attended another one.
“I just have a tough time because nothing we do at Camp Good Days is going to find a cure for cancer,” Mervis said.
If you go
What: Country singer Ronnie Milsap performs in honor of the Camp Good Days and Special Times 30th anniversary.
When: 8 p.m., Saturday, June 27
Where: Kodak’s Theater on the Ridge, 500 W. Ridge Road, Rochester.
Tickets: Available online at www.campgooddays.org or www.ticketmaster.com. Prices range from $30 to $150.