Eight-year-old Christopher Cutler, for example, lost his left arm to cancer. Sixteen-year-old Alan Poulton has a scar running down the back of his head where doctors removed a brain tumor. Seventeen-year-old Christa Jett uses a wheelchair because of a sarcoma in her back. And eleven-year-old Travis Parker must wear a suit designed by NASA and ski goggles to protect him from the sun.
The youngsters who attend Camp Rainbow Gold, nestled in the woods north of Ketchum, are survivors. They are lovers of life, and they know how to have a good time.
This is a place where the camp director shows up at the annual costume ball in a pink tutu and combat fatigues. Where the talent show is headlined by a choir attired in garbage bags, playing the theme to “The Brady Bunch” on V-8 juice cans. Where the kids end campfire songs with a rousing shout and then wait, hushed, for the man in the mountain to echo back.
To be sure, a specter hangs over the camp twice a day, when two doctors and four nurses dole out meds and draw blood. And when campers don tuxedos and corsages for the evening dance, knowing that some will not live long enough to attend their high school prom.
Sometimes you have to go to the bathroom and cry for ten minutes. Then you have to put your sunglasses on and walk out and say, ‘Hey, let’s go for a bike ride,’” says Kris Cronin, one of about 70 volunteers.
But, says Dr. Dave McCluskey, each year gets easier as survival rates improve. McCluskey has been there for all of the camp’s 19 years, decked out in a cowboy hat, boots, and green surgical scrubs. “We lost a third of our campers the first and second year. This year we have 70-plus campers, and we held a memorial service for five.”
The children and the camp seem to touch a giving chord in people. Motorcyclists come from all over the state to escort the children through Hailey and Ketchum to the camp, where they let the kids sit on their Harleys and rev ‘em up. Bob, Joanne, and Sierra Brand donate an afternoon each year to set up a makeshift salon under a Douglas fir, then cut and style the youngsters’ hair and paint tiger stripes on their fingernails.
Davis Embroidery donates beautifully embroidered T-shirts and hats. And youngsters who have not been touched by cancer make and sell bracelets to raise money so that these kids can experience what it’s like to get a sore butt from riding a horse instead of from having needles poked into them.
“Camp is more than a week of fun. It’s a growing experience for these kids,” says Cronin. “A lot of kids with cancer get ‘stuck’ at the age they were diagnosed—it’s as if they never mature past that point. Camp puts these kids on an equal level for a week and helps them go back to their home, their school, their church with a new outlook on life. They’re not as conscious of their scars or their lack of hair or the fact that they might walk or talk differently.”
The culmination of the week is a huge bonfire. Campers throw in pinecones to which they’ve attached wishes. There are no wishes for Nintendo games or new bikes. One girl wishes that her mother didn’t have to see her ill. Another wishes that he weren’t dying.
“When we have the campfire I try to remember my friends who have died,” says 10-year-old Sydney Tapia, who had a tumor removed from her kidney. “And it makes me feel lucky—and gifted—that I’m still alive.”
Karen Bossick was a writer with the Idaho Statesman before she moved to the Wood River Valley three years ago. She now relishes skiing and hiking Sun Valley trails with her pound-hound Banjo, and, of course, stumbling onto the people and places that make this valley unique.