Atlanta camp gives kids with cancer, siblings taste of summer fun

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For many youngsters, summer means camp.

This summer, Matt and Jamie Brewers three children are enjoying the camp experience together.

They are part of Aurora Day Camp, metro Atlanta's first summer-long day camp for kids with cancer and their siblings. But, looking around at the campers, it is hard which kids are patients, and which ones are siblings. Aurora Day Camp director Sami Tanenbaum says that is exactly the point.

"The beautiful thing about Aurora is, we don't tell our staff who has cancer," Tanenbaum says.  "And, most of the kids don't know, amongst themselves, unless they choose to share, who has cancer."

Tanenbaum says, in this camp, it's kids first, cancer second.

 "We don't talk about cancer," she says.  "We don't have cancer programming.  It looks and feels like any other day camp.  But in the background, we're a medical camp, we're a medical camp."

The day camp is open to children in active cancer treatment and their siblings, between the ages of 3 and a half and 16. This is 5-year old Caroline Brewer's first full camp, and the rising kindergartener is loving it.

"Caroline is a spitfire camper," Tanenbaum says.  "Caroline is full of joy.  She's vivacious and energetic. She just wants to play, and go, go, go."

Caroline is here with her big brothers, 9-year old Will and 6-year old Jack. Their parents say they noticed something was off with Caroline right as she turned 4.

"All five of us are lefties," Matt Brewer explains.  "And, she was a leftie, and then suddenly switched to her right hand. And, we started noticing some tremors and some shaking, and we realized something wasn't right."

At Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, an MRI revealed something devastating.

"She was diagnosed with softball-sized brain tumor on the right side of her head," Brewer says. "It was about the size of an adult male's fist."

In the two years since then, Caroline has battled through 3 different tumors.

Her hair is just now growing back from her third brain surgery back in March 2019.

"She's had three rounds of radiation, and countless sedations, and more hospital time than most people will in a lifetime," her father says. "But, she's done it well and been a trooper throughout."

The Brewers have tried to keep their children's lives as normal as possible.

The Aurora Day Camp is helping.

Funded by the Sunrise Association, kids can come to the camp for a day or two, or for the entire summer.

They sleep in their own beds at night, and there is no charge to their families for the camp experience. Tanenbaum says they want to strengthen the bond between siblings.

"They want to be here with each other," Tanenbaum says.  "They don't like coming without each other.  It's hard for them to say, 'I am coming to camp today, and you're not.'"

Will and Jack have visited Caroline in the hospital, and met other young cancer patients there. 

But at this camp, they're all just kids, here to have fun, on equal footing.

"I think it ramps up that empathetic response that you would want to have," Matt Brewer says. "They understand that not everybody gets to do what they do on a daily basis. There are kids who have struggles.  I think they see that, but they also see them succeed.  That's huge."

Caroline Brewer will start chemotherapy again soon. 

But, for now, she's soaking up the summer.

 "She is a pistol," her dad says.  "You cannot contain her energy.  She is so happy."