OKEECHOBEE — It was only a 5-minute call and a $35 badge but, together, they gave a 13-year-old cancer patient a joy he will never forget.
Chris Dodd, a detention deputy at the Okeechobee County Jail, takes four days out of the summer each year to volunteer at Camp Merry Times in his native Asheville, N.C. The four-day camp is strictly for kids who are battling cancer.
Chris learned about the camp first hand when his son, Jared, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease when he was 7 years old. Today, Jared is 25 years old and cancer free. In fact, beams a proud dad, he is a recently-married firefighter/paramedic in Dallas, Texas.
Jared’s twin brother, Justin, never had to fight cancer. But they all, at one time or another, have spent time at Camp Merry Times.
“Jared comes back to Asheville and helps with the camp,” said Chris. “In fact, the whole clan of us do it. It’s a great time.”
Although Justin has also volunteered at the camp, he is currently a second-year law student at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and juggling his classes and the long trip back to North Carolina kept him from volunteering this summer.
As he remembered what his own son had to overcome, Chris simply defined that experience as “humbling.”
“Jared did chemotherapy and radiation for a year,” recalled Chris. “It was the most helpless time of my life. There’s nothing you can do. You’d trade places with him in a minute.”
But on that warm August day Chris, a counselor and volunteer at the camp, knew exactly what to do. Chris was paired up with a boy named Daniel who has neuroblastoma and has been having a rough time. Counselors and kids are normally paired up on a 1:1 basis, explained Camp Merry Times director Ian Williams.
Chris explained that when he packed his bags he apparently forgot to leave his Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO) badge at home and found it in one of his bags. So as he and Daniel were eating breakfast with the rest of the kids and counselors on that last day of camp, Chris made a decision.
In front of everyone, Chris gave his badge to Daniel. But, the boy’s surprise didn’t stop there. Chris picked up his cell phone on that Sunday morning and called OCSO Major Noel Stephen.
With the whole camp listening, Maj. Stephen spoke with Daniel.
“I hear you’re the sheriff up there?” inquired the major.
“Yes, sir,” answered Daniel.
At that point Maj. Stephen swore Daniel in as a special deputy with the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office.
“There wasn’t a dry eye in the place,” recalled Chris, who was fighting to control his emotions as he talked about that phone call. “Noel understands this kid might not be here next year. Noel went out of his way ….”
It’s small things like this, said Maj. Stephen, that makes the job all worth while.
“The men and women of law enforcement do our jobs to help others and very seldom get a ‘thank you,’” he said. “It’s moments of doing something good — such as swearing in Daniel — that rewards us enough to continue doing what we do best.”
After that call, all the kids and counselors referred to Daniel as ‘The Sheriff,’ said Mr. Williams.
“It was a really, really special moment to see a kid (so happy) who’s had a really tough time of it,” said Mr. Williams in a phone interview. “Daniel has a real love of life and a will to live, and it really shows.”
He went on to explain that the camp started in the early ’90s, and is put on every year by the Friends of Santa Claus. The camp is just one of the many things that merry group does for children.
Mr. Williams said they just had a big Christmas party for all the kids, along with their parents and siblings. Before the party, he continued, he calls the parents to find out what their child wants for Christmas. The Friends of Santa Claus then orders and wraps all the presents for the kids.
The party is held in the ballroom of a local hotel where the children get to play games, and a box of groceries or grocery gift certificates are given to the families.
“Cancer is really difficult — it’s the number one killer of kids,” said Mr. Williams. “A lot of times any money parents have saved for college, or whatever, is used for treatment.”
Hence, the grocery items. The group also provides a scholarship, if requested, for any child in the program that pays $2,000 per year for the child to attend the college of their choice.
After all the games have been played, each child gets to sit on Santa’s lap and tells him what they want for Christmas. “Then, when they (the child) step off the stage their present is wrapped and waiting,” Mr. Williams added.
The camp director said the number of kids who attend the summer camp varies from a low of 50 to 60 up to 175. Also, he said, counselors come from all across the U.S.
“We have people who come from Colorado, Wisconsin and Florida,” Mr. Williams pointed out.
Besides the counselors the camp is also home for doctors, nurses, oncologists and hematologists for those four days. While the parents of the children don’t stay, their siblings can.
“Obviously, you want a health-care specialist on staff at camp time and you want someone specifically trained to help with someone who has cancer,” explained the director.
He went on to say when a child is battling cancer, it can be a very difficult time for the rest of the family.
“It’s hard on the parents, definitely, and (the camp) taking the siblings as well helps parents to take an adult vacation. That’s important to,” he said.
“As camp director, I see it sometimes that it can be hard for a parent to drop off their kid. But, we’re responsible people and we care about their kids.
“And people like Chris, who are volunteers that are fun and silly, are important too,” Mr. Williams added.
The camp is financed through donations and grants.
“We have people with generous hearts that help bring a little joy into these kids’ lives. I want to help these kids experience fun and joy,” said Mr. Williams. “Unfortunately, some of our kids won’t make it. But, some of them will.
“Regardless of what may happen, we want them to have a good time,” he added.
While Chris realizes there is always the chance some of the kids won’t be there when he goes back to Asheville next summer, he’ll be there to give of himself and to see them smile.
“You just try to make it as fun as you can for them …,” he said, his voice trailing off.
For some, Camp Merry Times may be their last chance to laugh and just be a kid. To learn more, go to friendsofsantaclaus.org. Or, contact Ian Williams at 825 C. Merrimon Ave. #192, Asheville, N.C. 28804; or, call him at 828-656-3672.
Eric Kopp is a staff writer for the Okeechobee News