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The camp of love

At Corbett's Camp Agape, children and families who have battled cancer enjoy a week of reprieve
by: Shanda Tice, Camper Josiah Rodriguez, 7, fishes at Camp Agape in Corbett on Monday, Aug. 7.

There's a light breeze coming off the pond and puffy clouds have blocked the intense sun above Corbett's Camp Angelos. Teresa Yaws and Sharon Olson take a break at a covered picnic table to watch a group of children fish for stocked trout.

The two women have barely met, but when Teresa starts to talk about her 12-year-old son, Aaron, she finds a soul mate in Sharon.

'He was always healthy, always active, so it was a shock,' Teresa says of Aaron's recent cancer diagnosis. 'He was diagnosed in June, and it's been a roller coaster ride ever since. It just came on so quick.'

Sharon is watching her own children, 11-year-old Kimberlie and 14-year-old Stephanie, while Teresa talks about Aaron. When she hears about the boy's quick progression from normal preteen to leukemia patient, Sharon turns to face the mother beside her.

'That's exactly the way it was with Kimberlie,' she tells Teresa. 'One minute she was fine and then she wasn't. It's every parent's worst fear.'

A life-changing diagnosis

For Teresa, Sharon and the rest of the parents at Camp Agape, a weeklong camp for children with cancer and their families, held Aug. 7-11 at Camp Angelos in Corbett, their entire world came to a halt the day their child was diagnosed with cancer.

These families went from worrying about summer vacation plans to worrying that they would lose the love of their lives.

Instead of measuring time in terms of school days versus weekends, they measure it in good days versus bad.

Instead of making plans for soccer camp or ballet class, they make arrangements for chemo appointments and bone marrow aspirations.

The pressure is intense. The worry is always there and, as a parent, they have to hold it together for their child.

What do mothers like Teresa and Sharon do when the fear is too great?

'When it's your kid, you do what you have to do. Faith is huge for us. But sometimes you just fall apart. You go in the bedroom and you cry, and then you dry your tears and you go back out and you're there for your child,' Sharon says.

Getting a break, even for one week, means the world to people like Teresa, Sharon, Aaron and Kimberlie.

'It's coming to places like this and meeting people like this that keeps you going, that gives you something to look forward to,' Sharon says.

Kimberlie says she loves Camp Agape.

'It's a time to get your mind off your troubles,' Kimberlie says. 'It's so much fun.'

A unique place

There are other camps for children with cancer, of course, but Camp Agape, run by the Greek Orthodox group, the Holy Trinity Philoptochos, is unique in that it's for the whole family.

'We're a really close family, so we love being able to come with the girls,' Sharon says.

She and her husband, Jim, have brought Kimberlie and her older sister, Stephanie, to Camp Agape since Kimberlie's diagnosis three years ago.

A slew of volunteers makes Camp Agape a total getaway for these families. They cook the meals, pull together activities like 'spa day,' - a day of relaxation for the whole family with free massages, manicures, pedicures and haircuts - and keep the camp going year to year.

The turnover for families is high. Some children go into remission. Others do not. There is a memorial garden to remember children who have died.

Norm Ritchie is a volunteer with the Sandy chapter of the Association of Northwest Steelheaders, which hosts the fishing camp for Camp Agape children each year.

Fishing for stocked trout is a way for the children and their families to relax at the end of a busy day at camp. They catch and release gleaming trout from private stocks, and practice safe fishing techniques.

Some don't return

The experience Camp Agape is rewarding, but highly emotional, Ritchie says.

'You see the children year to year and sometimes they don't return. There was one little guy, he loved fishing more than anything. But he didn't make it. He passed. It's just hard to describe. Sometime you just get choked up,' Ritchie says.

The families count on the volunteers to remain a constant year to year.

There are the fishing guys - mainly grandpa types who seem gruff at first glance, but have a gooey center - like Gus Kriara, manager of the camp and a member of the Steelheaders group, who others stress 'keeps this camp running,' and Larry Beaver of Gresham, a Steelheaders member who adores the children and is a stickler for safety. 'We don't want anyone with a hook in their eye,' Beaver says, half-joking. 'Fish don't like eyeballs, you know.'

Pearl Pavlos, one of the most familiar faces at Camp Agape, teases the fishermen.

'They're old grumps who would never let anybody touch their fishing poles, but they let these little kids use them,' Pearl says.

A member of the Holy Trinity church, Pearl has been volunteering at Camp Agape (the name is Greek for 'love') for the past 11 years.

'Coming here keeps our heads on straight. When you have a crappy day, you think about these kids and you realize it's nothing, you've got nothing going on compared to them,' Pearl says.

Into remission

Pearl's granddaughters are a hit with Camp Agape campers, especially 11-year-old Katie Knudson, who has been coming to the camp with her parents, Karen and Mark Knudson, for the past three years.

'I look forward to seeing my friends every year,' Katie says. 'It's very relaxing here … I like the food a lot, and it's fun to go fishing and swimming.'

Much like 11-year-old Kimberlie, who recently went into remission, Katie looks like a normal, healthy preteen. With her shoulder-length brown hair, blue t-shirt proclaiming 'I Love My Dad' and freshly manicured nails, Katie could pass for a youngster out for a regular day with her father at a fishing pond.

Her mom, Karen, is grateful for a break every summer. 'It's phenomenal. There are activities for the whole family. You can talk to other families who have been through what you're going through. The meals are prepared for you. The activities are planned,' Karen says, smiling at Katie, who is about to reel in her second trout of the day.

'This is a chance to think of nothing. To just relax and get away from everything else that's going on in your life. It's really wonderful.'