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Your Team. Three Sports. One Day.

The MLSE Team Up Challenge presented by Ford is a unique, multi-sport tournament where teams of 8-10 players compete in basketball, soccer, ball hockey, beach volleyball and beach dodgeball.

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MLSE Team Up Challenge Captains and MLSE Foundation Staff Visit Camp Trillium

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August 22, 2013
MLSE Team Up Challenge Captains and MLSE Foundation Staff Visit Camp Trillium

By Mike Ulmer, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Staff Writer

It’s not much of a cake really: a vanilla mix job with candy bits thrown into the bowl for good measure.

Ah, but the message it carries.

“Happy No More CHEMO”

Welcome to a Thursday at Camp Trillium, a 170-acre retreat near Waterford, 20 minutes south of Brantford.

Camp Trillium has the staples of a summer camp: sailing, swimming, water sports, high ropes, arts and crafts. The only real concession to cancer is a treatment centre named The Body Shop where nurses wearing flip flops monitor the oral chemotherapy some of the kids take.

The camp exists without government funding and operates with annual budget of about $2.5 million. You are reading this story because last year we launched the MLSE Team Up Challenge, an all-day sports tournament held in June. Brought to you by the MLSE Foundation, and supported by the Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto Raptors, Toronto FC, and Toronto Marlies – the MLSE Team Up Challenge proudly supports Camp Trillium.

As a camp that serves kids with cancer, their families and even the grieving families of former campers, Camp Trillium exists in counterpoint to your expectations.

“I’ve had friends ask me ‘how can you work at a camp with cancer patients?” said Rebecca Foreshew, a full time student nurse who summers at the camp as one of four paid or volunteer medical staff. “It’s exactly the opposite. In a few minutes, you forget you’re at a camp that’s about cancer because we don’t see these kids as kids with cancer. We see them as campers.”

Rachel Friesen is the 18-year-old girl with the cake and one of seven young people honored with a cheer and a mini procession at lunch. Like more than half the counselors, she is a former camper. Her leukemia, diagnosed in October of 2010 abated. Her last treatment was in January but there is no statute of limitations on cakes that commemorate the end of chemotherapy.

Cancer, as malignant a force as exists in this world, brings out the best in people. But that kindness comes with a distance.

“When you have cancer, your friends treat you differently,” Rachel said. “They always make sure your needs are met first. That’s great but here we live with a normal playing field. Everyone here has experience with cancer and because of that everyone understands you have to be treated as a kid first and a cancer patient second.”

Eighty per cent of the kids who come through Camp Trillium survive their illness but the cancer track is a terrifying, sudden blind stumble through a network of health care specialists and institutions.

“When a child gets cancer it’s incredibly destructive for the whole family,” said Marci Shea-Perry, the camp’s executive director. “Here, they can meet other families who are going through or have gone through the same thing. They can swap tips and information but they can also listen and learn and take comfort from each other.”

Sarah Watkin got a cake. She is six and she lives in Thornhill with her parents Mark and Leah and her little sister Elizabeth. She put the boots to childhood leukemia but the experience was a shattering one for her family.

“When Sarah was diagnosed we lived in the hospital for half a year,” Mark said. “Your regular life gets put on hold. To watch her play with other kids and not with doctors and nurses is a miracle.”

It’s that normalcy, the laconic pace of a languid summer day that heals and has been healing for 17 years.

Josh Hofley is 19 and a counselor. He spent two years as a camper, sharing the camp with his little brother Hunter, another survivor. He is, like everyone at the camp, wise to the cancer culture. He understands the necessity of extra care and treatments. But he’s a kid. Kids, maybe especially sick kids and by association their siblings, need the anarchy that summer brings.

“In the regular world, if you’re a parent you’re always worried about leaving your kid with someone,” he said. “Will they get sick? What happens if they do? Here, you’re leaving your kid with someone who understands them. Here, everyone gets it.”

The weekly procession, says Josh, isn’t the icing on the cake. It’s the cherry on the icing.

“Some families cry. Some families laugh,” said intern Christian O’Brien, another former camper who outdistanced Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Christian is from Ajax and his treatment came and went in three weeks three years ago when he was 14. “Every week, it’s incredible to see.”

The end of camp carried a special sadness for Mila and Richard Sadlowski. Their son Steven, whom they shared the camp with for three years, died nearly two years ago. He was 11.

“The first year here without Steven was very hard,” Mila said. “We miss him so much, his energy and his courage but it’s good here. Steven loved it here. Kids could be normal here.”

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Learn more about Camp Trillium and how you can join us next year at the MLSE Team Up Challenge.