By Laura McAlister
During Lynn Thompson’s 23 years as executive director of Camp Smile-A-Mile, it wasn’t uncommon for her to come across some skeptical parents.
In fact, years ago, Lynn herself was one such parent.
It was 1985, the year Alabama’s camp for children who have or have had cancer was founded, and Lynn’s oldest daughter Charlotte had been invited to attend.
Charlotte was diagnosed with cancer in 1979 when she was 9 months old. She had to have a kidney removed but was healthy and cancer-free when she made up her mind to attend Camp SAM.
“My husband and I were like, oh, my gosh – surely she’s not interested in that,” Lynn recalled. “I mean, she had hair, she had friends, she was in a Brownie troop. Charlotte, for some reason, just kept on begging to go.
“As a mom, I guess I was more vocal than my husband. I told her there’d be sick kids there, that she’d be calling me wanting to come home.”
Lynn spent Charlotte’s first week at Camp SAM waiting by the phone, but a call from her daughter never came. Even so, she expected Charlotte would be thrilled to see her, eager to go home when Lynn came to pick her up at the end of the week.
She was wrong.
“She barely gave me the time of day,” Lynn said. “That was the beginning of me eating my words. Those friends that she met in ’85 are still her dearest friends today, and that’s not just Charlotte’s experience. That’ll happen this summer with each child. They have such a unique bond. I can’t imagine Charlotte not experiencing it.”
Lynn can’t imagine her life without experiencing Camp SAM, either.
She took over as executive director of the camp in 1988. Though she retired this year, Lynn said she knows Camp SAM will continue to grow and provide a one-of-a-kind camping experience not just for the children who have or have had cancer but also for their families.
That’s just one change that occurred under Lynn’s leadership of the camp.
While the mission has remained the same since its founding – Camp SAM gives the children who attend a free overnight camping experience while they receive the medical care they need – the camp’s scope has increased greatly under Lynn’s leadership.
When Lynn took over, Camp SAM hosted a one-week session once a year, and the location varied since Camp SAM had no permanent home.
“We were kind of going to all different campsites around the area,” she said. “One year we’d be somewhere. Then it would change ownership, and we’d be looking in the Yellow Pages for another campsite.”
In 1991, Alexander City native and philanthropist Ben Russell changed that. He had a campsite, Children’s Harbor, built on Lake Martin. There, Camp SAM hosts multiple sessions where children, as well as their families, get to enjoy boating, fishing, archery, cooking, canoeing and more.
The camp experience was extended to families during Lynn’s second year with a spring family weekend. Lynn understood the skepticism parents might have about leaving their child overnight and said the family weekend was designed in part to make parents feel more at ease.
“We wanted to introduce newly-diagnosed families to what Camp SAM was all about, so they would feel comfortable and safe,” she said. “We started building on that program and how cancer affects the whole family.”
The family sessions include programs for moms and dads as well as children, Lynn said.
They became so popular that the camp began offering another family weekend in the fall. Later, another session would be added for siblings.
“Siblings are really affected strongly by their brother or sister being diagnosed,” Lynn said. “A lot of times they don’t get a lot of attention or have to go live with a neighbor or grandparents. In learning and listening to the siblings, we decided to start a weekend just for them, and it’s really gotten huge. The great part about it is they get to participate in all the bonding, too.”
Camp SAM is no longer just a summer or weekend camp. Now, programs are conducted continuously throughout the year.
There is a teen program and a young adult program. Both take trips to the beach and mountains and to cities like New York and Chicago. The camp also offers monthly activities for children ages 6-18.
A scholarship program has even been added. In 2011, Lynn said, the camp gave about $65,000 in scholarships to kids who have been involved in the camp. Recipients have to stay involved with Camp SAM in some way.
In addition to growing camp programs, Lynn also was challenged to grow the budget. Camp SAM is a nonprofit organization, relying solely on donations.
“We don’t receive any money from the American Cancer Society or United Way,” Lynn said. “The whole reason for our success is we’ve been very fortunate in fundraising — that and our partnership with Children’s.”
Camp SAM has partnered with Children’s of Alabama since its founding. Children’s, also a nonprofit, supplies the medical care at the camp sessions, which Lynn said has been key in making it successful. Not only are parents ensured their children are receiving proper medical care, but the children also get to see their doctors and nurses in a whole new light, Lynn said.
“If they’re in a bathing suit or fishing, so is their doctor or nurse,” she said, “or they might be having a shaving cream fight with them. At camp we’re all doing the same thing. For the medical professionals, they really get to see who these kids are.”
As Lynn settles into retirement, she knows she won’t be going to camp this summer, as she has for the past 23 years. While she said she’d miss the interaction with the kids, she knows she’s leaving the camp in good hands.
In January, Camp SAM board president Bruce Hooper officially took over as executive director. He joined the board in 2006 and became president in 2008.
“I told Lynn I just want to move onward and upward,” Bruce said. “I want to make her proud and take it to the next level and just be mindful each day what this camp is doing for these kids and their families.”
20th Annual Red Nose Ball
When: Feb. 18, 6 p.m.
Where: Cahaba Grand Conference Center
Tickets: $300 each or $2,000 for a table
Details: The Red Nose Ball is Camp SAM’s largest fundraiser. It includes a live and silent auction as well as a seated dinner. NBC 13 anchor Mike Royer will be the emcee of this year’s, and Ken Jackson will be auctioneer. The Undergrounders will provide live music.
Information: Visit www.campsam.org, email email@example.com or call 323-8427.