Holly, who is one of Special Love’s most energetic counselors and enthusiastic ambassadors, moved to Northern Virginia in 2004 to work as a Child Life Specialist for the Pediatric Oncology Unit at INOVA Fairfax Children’s Hospital. Her introduction to Special Love came soon after and it was informal – and instantaneous:
“The pediatric chaplain, Rob Rideout (a former Special Love volunteer), approached me and said, ‘So you're going to go to Camp Fantastic too, right?’ The rest is history.“
Holly soon researched Special Love and realized it was so much more than just one week of camp. She attended her first weekend program in 2005 and has since been an integral part of nearly all our programs. To many campers, she is “Princess Pat,” thanks to the fact that she leads that campfire song by popular request almost daily. Not even COVID could keep her away from the campers:
“I happily still serve despite the changes that we have had to make and endure since the COVID pandemic hit. Throughout that time, I realized the importance of the continuation of this service to families as they not only battle cancer but also take on [an] extremely high level of anxiety in society as a whole due to the pandemic and wanting their children to have some fun while being in lock down even more than usual.”
Holly’s love of camp goes beyond her infectious energy and creativity. She has found that the lifelong friendships and year-round connections that camp fosters are what make camp so inspirational.
“Families have the opportunity to connect with others going through a very similar situation and build a community of support… brought together by a very terrible agent, cancer – [one that] helps shift the focus to the positive aspect of LIVING LIFE no matter what you are facing.”
The campers, surrounded by medical and mental health support away from a hospital or doctor's office, have opportunities to explore their independence and develop a strong sense of self outside of their diagnosis. That creates “a safe haven throughout their cancer journey, which continues after actual treatments end.”
Holly has scores of happy memories from camp, but her favorites are:
“Parents…letting their child spend a week away from home with me and the rest of the awesome volunteers knowing that they are giving up precious time with their child who is facing cancer and reassuring them that their child's every need will be addressed and taken care of… and after their child has attended camp and hearing parents with a warm smile, wide eyes, and heartfelt gratitude for helping their child be a child again and not ‘a child with cancer’."
She credits Special Love for “giving me the opportunity to see families truly enjoy life outside of the hospital.” Her additional thoughts:
“I have had the honor to meet families at an extremely trying time in their life while their child is enduring countless medical procedures; Parents are questioning and considering treatment options, losing sleep…, trying to care for additional children, working to maintain life's basic necessities, and still put on a happy face to be "brave" for their children and spouse. [Special Love has] given me the opportunity to partner with an organization that encourages exploration and development for children.”