Camp Good Days Brings Fun and Relief to Families Battling Cancer | Local News
Lisa Booz started her day by calming down one of her campers.
Eight-year-old Fiona Donnelly, who is battling acute lymphocytic leukemia, felt tired and irritable. But Booz, the WNY regional manager of Camp Good Days, calmed her down. Moments like this may happen again as Camp Good Days resumes normal operations this year.
“Engaging with the kids is the most rewarding part,” said Booz, who has been involved with the camp for 17 years. “It’s a relief to get back to business, to get back to the tradition of what we do.”
Fiona is one of 42 children who attended the 34th annual Junior Good Days camp last week, one of many ventures run by Camp Good Days. The day camp returns to a normal schedule for the first time since 2019. The Covid-19 pandemic has led to the modification of the 2020 and 2021 events.
“I really like camp,” said Fiona, who wants to be a YouTuber when she’s older. “Advisors are funny.”
Camp Good Days offers services and support to families affected by cancer or sickle cell disease. The program covers Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse and the southern part.
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Founder Gary Mervis, 78, started Camp Good Days in 1979 after his 9-year-old daughter, Elizabeth “Teddi” Mervis, was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor that year. Teddi died in 1982 at the age of 12.
Mervis saw that the most painful thing for her daughter was not the cancer or the treatments. It was the loneliness of being the only person in your school or neighborhood with cancer.
“I remember picking up a stack of towels for Teddi because she was crying about not having friends,” Mervis said. “Daughters usually think their dad can do anything, and she was looking to me for the answers.”
Because Mervis was traveling for work, he decided to put his career on hold and become Teddi’s primary carer. One day he heard about a Michigan doctor who had started an outdoor camp for children being treated for cancer. Mervis got in touch with the program and he soon founded Camp Good Days, the fourth such organization in the country.
The organization includes the Junior Good Days program, a week-long camp for children ages 4-7. This year, 8-year-olds were allowed to participate because they weren’t able to get the full camp experience at the start of the pandemic.
Parents usually drop off their children for the day. However, at the start of the pandemic, the structure changed so that children attended camp with their parents in socially distanced modules.
Other precautions such as masking, private bathrooms provided by Colton RV, and removal of food and beverages were part of this experience. Booz is happy to see the return of kids-only camps this year.
“The goal of Camp Good Days is to make sure kids are allowed to be kids,” Booz said. “Even though they’re young, they need to have a bit of autonomy on their own. That’s how they grow up, that’s how they make new friends.”
This year, children begin their days at St. Philip the Apostle in Cheektowaga, where they participate in activities such as carnival games, crafts and face painting before heading out on field trips.
Junior Good Days organizes trips to Get Air, Billy Beez, Dave & Buster’s, Darien Lake, the Harbor Center and Explore & More Children’s Museum.
At Explore & More on Thursday, children interacted with a variety of exhibits. Five-year-old Kiernan, who is Fiona’s brother, says he loves playing with the water at Canal Works station. 6-year-old KJ practiced his basketball moves in the ball pit. Seven-year-old Adriana and four-year-old Ben fixed a car at the makeshift gas station.
Good Days camp is not just for children with serious illnesses. After Teddi’s death, Mervis saw that her two other children struggled to cope. He decided to expand the camp to include children who have siblings or parents with cancer or who have lost a parent or sibling to cancer.
Some three dozen volunteers serve as counselors each day at the camp. Many of them are former campers, like 25-year-old Leah Underwood. Underwood attended Junior Good Days when he was five with his 7-year-old sister, Kayla Cassidy, who suffered from leukemia but has now been in remission for 20 years.
“Camp Good Days has been such a fun place,” Underwood said. “Now that I’m in college, I wanted to give back because they gave us so much when we were little.”
Mervis is especially proud to be able to offer the services of Camp Good Days free of charge throughout its existence.
“I didn’t want parents to be afraid of paying for camp on top of everything else they were dealing with,” Mervis said. “It’s been a constant challenge to get the resources to deliver on that promise, but I’m proud that we were able to keep it.”
Mervis continues to pursue Camp Good Days with the help of Wendy Mervis, his wife of 27 years. Decades later, they continue to help children and families going through similar hardships as their daughter.
“It became my memorial to my daughter,” Gary Mervis said. “The good Lord showed me that when Teddi got sick, that’s what I was called to.”