When Sheila Baker and her late husband, Tom, the founders of Special Love and its hallmark program, Camp Fantastic, started the organization in 1983, they had no idea they were starting an organization that would become a community of hundreds of families and thousands of supporters. They just wanted to provide a week of camp to children with cancer:
“Our original vision was to have 30 or 40 children coming to camp and we would have a wonderful, fun week. I don’t think Tom or anyone who helped us ever dreamed it would be what it is today. I’m sure it was a hope we projected in our minds that it would grow, but I don’t think we ever knew we would have so many programs.”
Special Love was a labor of love for Sheila and Tom, especially having lost a daughter, Julie, to lymphoma at age 13. In fact, Sheila’s initial fear was that a camper would pass away during camp and a family would experience the grief that she and Tom had endured. Yet seeing so many kids thrive at camp and go on to build lives past cancer was inspiring and what kept them going. She says, “It was a wonderful feeling and it still is.”
Sheila found that camp introduced her to a community of support, one that has grown substantially over the years and that still provides the same sense of relief that she and many of the original families found so life-changing.
“In the beginning, I made friends with so many mothers because there weren’t a whole lot of people for me to associate with… so the mothers and I would get out on the lounge (chair)s and the next thing you know, I had some really nice friends and several that I still keep in touch with, not to mention cancer patients that have survived.”
Sheila has many great memories from the early years of camp. Among her favorites was the time the counselors took the campers “snipe hunting.” (Snipes are small, furry – and imaginary – creatures.) After much elaborate preparation and a flashlight-illumined hike down to the camp’s amphitheater, the campers found not snipes but the East Coast rock band LEGGS, who kicked off a raucous night of music and dancing.
Sheila’s hopes for the future are two-fold:
“I hope camp will continue; I know it will. That was Tom’s and my dream and I hope it will continue long after we are gone. I also hope is that one day you won’t need to have camp, that there will be no children’s cancer. That’s the real dream.”