John Obert, Camp SAM:
‘There Are Hundreds of Ways to Give Back’
By Keysha Drexel
John Obert grew up in Hoover watching cartoons on Saturday mornings like most kids his age. But it was not an animated show that most captured his attention–and heart–and led him to devote his free time to helping others.
The 30-year-old Hoover resident said it was the Jerry Lewis telethons to help sick children that inspired him to get involved with Camp Smile-A-Mile, a nonprofit organization that provides camp and other programs for children who have or have had cancer.
“Most people have something that they really care about. For some people it’s the welfare of animals. Some people want to help the environment or the elderly,” Obert said. “For me, watching the Jerry Lewis telethons and hearing about sick children really pulled at my heart, and I knew I wanted to do something to help.”
Obert, who co-owns J3 Organics, an urban farm in Bessemer, has been a member of the Camp SAM junior board for about five years.
But Obert started volunteering his time to help sick children even before that.
“I started volunteering at Children’s (of Alabama) about seven or eight years ago and initially started as a greeter,” he said. “I then started volunteering in the orthopedics clinic and in the stem cell unit and then moved to the oncology unit.”
At that time, Obert said, the hospital didn’t have a lot of male volunteers, and he saw the opportunity to help the young boys fighting cancer.
“I would spend all day every Thursday just hanging out with them, playing video games or making paper airplanes to throw at the nurses. We would talk about school and their interests and really, my aim was to get their minds off cancer for a little while and just let them be kids,” he said.
One of the young cancer patients Obert befriended during his time volunteering at Children’s of Alabama was Tucker Beam.
The Hoover 8-year-old was battling his third type of cancer when Obert met him.
“Tucker had such incredible insights to be so young, and I will never forget the time I spent with him that year,” Obert said.
It was while getting to know Beam and his family that Obert learned about what the families of young cancer patients go through on a daily basis, he said.
“Behind every young cancer patient is a family that still has to cut the grass and work to pay the bills and take care of the other children in the family,” he said. “I got to see that it is not just the child that is affected by this terrible diagnosis.”
Obert said he heard about Camp SAM while volunteering at Children’s of Alabama.
“I heard a lot of the nurses talking about Camp SAM, and after forming a lot of personal relationships with the young cancer patients at Children’s, I wanted to find out more about it,” he said.
Camp SAM is headquartered two blocks behind Children’s of Alabama in Birmingham. However, the permanent campsite facility, Children’s Harbor, is on Lake Martin in Alexander City. Children’s Harbor donates the use of the campsite facility for Camp SAM.
Before Camp SAM, children with cancer in Alabama couldn’t go to overnight camp because of chemotherapy or other medical treatments. Now, children with cancer can attend camp while receiving the medical care they need. More than 400 children participate in Camp SAM annually.
Camp SAM, Obert said, gives young cancer patients the kind of experience Obert said he tried to give patients at Children’s of Alabama.
“They need a place and a time where they don’t have to worry about feeling different because their hair is falling out because of chemo. That’s what Camp SAM does. It’s a place where everyone is going through the same thing,” he said. “I think our job is to provide the best opportunities we can for these children during the brief time they are at camp.”
Obert said he likes that Camp SAM addresses the whole family when it comes with dealing with a childhood cancer diagnosis.
“Camp SAM also has a sibling camp and a family camp, so it’s not just a program for the patients alone,” he said. “It’s an organization that really understands the complicated dynamic of fighting cancer and how that affects an entire family.”
Camp SAM also offers programs for survivors of childhood cancer, Obert said.
“Now, we’re teaching survivors who are young adults all the things they might have missed because they were fighting for their lives,” Obert said. “They may have been pulled out of school a lot to get treatment, so they need help with things like learning to balance a checkbook or how to build a resume. It’s those kinds of life lessons that the survivors’ program tries to teach.”
Obert served a full four-year term on the Camp SAM junior board and stayed on for an additional year, which illustrates his commitment to the work being done at Camp SAM, the organization’s development director said.
“John has been such an incredible asset to Camp Smile-A-Mile,” Savannah Lanier said. “He has proven himself to be a leader on the junior board of directors.”
Obert is the kind of person who works diligently for Camp SAM, Lanier said, but who does not seek recognition for his efforts.
“John is an incredible force of nature who is always willing to step in to lend a hand,” Lanier said. “He often flies under the radar doing good deed after good deed, but the impact he makes at Camp Smile-A-Mile is very visible.”
Obert said he is thankful to be involved in an organization that gives a lot of assistance and guidance to its junior board.
“It’s so inspiring to see the top professionals in the state working right along with you to help these kids,” Obert said.
Obert said he feels a responsibility to give back to the community because he knows what it is like to depend on the kindness of strangers.
“After my parents divorced, my family went through some struggles and were fortunate enough that people in our community came together to help us, and that’s something I’ll never forget,” he said. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if it hadn’t been for people who were willing to help.”
Obert said his mother, Martha Moran, continues to be an inspiration to him because of her generosity and thoughtfulness.
“My mom has always taught me to be thankful for those that helped us when we were down and struggling and to give back every chance we had to help someone else,” he said. “To this day, she brings roses to all the women in her Sunday School class on Mother’s Day.”
Obert said he’s also inspired to serve the community by Justin Truelow, who every year volunteers for a week as a counselor at Camp SAM.
“If these successful people can take time out of their lives and away from their families to brighten the lives of the kids at Camp SAM, then the rest of us really have no excuse for not doing our part,” he said.
Obert said he encourages young professionals to find something they are passionate about and get involved in as many ways as they can.
“There are hundreds of ways to give back, to make the whole community better for everyone,” he said. “Don’t just join an organization because that’s the organization all your friends are joining–find something that’s important to you. And if there’s not an organization that really resonates with you and how you want to help, start your own.”