When Mackenzie Hymas was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer at just a year old, her outlook was grim. “There’s no cure for her and right now she’s not in treatment,” says her mother, Sharon. And because her disease impacts her brain, the now 10-year-old Mackenzie wasn’t expected to walk, talk, or write.
“She does all that and more, and I attribute a lot of that to Camp Cartwheel,” her mom says. “She pushes herself to do things that the other kids can do.” Not only that, but she wants to see a smile on Camp Cartwheel co-director Geoff Lavell’s face. Because, Hymas says, it gives her hope.
Lavell is all too familiar with children like Mackenzie. After all, the cancer survivor and team leader of Lavell & Associates, Better Homes and Gardens Desert Properties in Henderson, Nev., was “dragged to the camp” as a 14-year-old who had been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 1997.
A Special Place
Camp Cartwheel, run by the Nevada Childhood Cancer Foundation (NCCF), is a patient-sibling summer camp that offers a safe and fun place for children suffering from serious diseases such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, renal disease, and more. “I wasn’t willing to accept myself as a cancer patient,” says Lavell, who has been cured since 2007. But he went, and he’s been an increasingly integral part of the camp since that first year — rising from counselor-in-training to co-director through the years.
“As co-director for the last six years, I’ve gotten to shape the direction of the camp and have been intimately involved in developing the curriculum,” Lavell says. In fact, he’s so entrenched in Camp Cartwheel that he met his wife, Kisha, the camp’s volunteer medical director, at camp, proposed to her there, and got married at Torino Ranch, where the camp is held. “We now have a one-year-old daughter, Brynn, and she goes to camp strapped to our backs,” says Lavell.
“It takes a special person to lead a group of 200 volunteers, and Geoff is the heart and soul of our camp,” says Jeffrey R. Gordon, president and CEO of NCCF. “He gives people a sense of confidence and optimism. His passion burns bright.”
For the young Lavell, camp wasn’t just a fun place to go, it was much more emotional than that. During the first year after he attended camp as a teenager four children passed away. “As a cancer patient, you become keenly aware of the loss that is possible,” he says. “I grew up pretty quickly.”
As an adult, he sees his role in these children's lives very clearly. “It’s a privilege to be at Camp Cartwheel. We get four days with these sick children — days that their parents probably won’t get back,” says Lavell. “So in those four days, we get to do what modern medicine can’t do — make them laugh. Many campers hold out just long enough to go to camp and succumb shortly thereafter.”
For Bob and Yolanda Rodriquez, grandparents and legal guardians of Hannah (14), Sarah (13), Joannah (9) and Titus (8), the NCCF and Camp Cartwheel provide a lifeline. Hannah and Sarah both have juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and all the children have lasting illnesses due to exposure to drugs while in the womb.
“Geoff is a compassionate, unique person. He’s always there with a smile to bring up your spirits,” says Bob Rodriquez. And, he says, attending camp has helped his older daughters deal with separation issues and has given them friends to reach out to when they’re feeling down. “Joannah connected with a little girl who had cancer and had otherwise been unreachable [by other children],” he adds. “It’s helped my kids truly take stock in how lucky they are — every day.”
Siblings Are Welcome
The camp also invites siblings to take part in the fun. “Everyone participates in the same activities, but we find the siblings gravitate toward other siblings,” Gordon says. “It helps them realize that they aren’t the only ones going through having a sister or brother with a severe illness.”
“Four of my five children go to camp every year,” Hymas says. “Only Mackenzie has cancer. It’s a nice break for the siblings who are stuck going to doctor’s appointments and missing out on the attention they deserve. It’s hard on the siblings when a parent has to focus so much attention on a sick child.”
In addition to the spending at least six months each year planning, organizing, and attending camp, Lavell participates in a puppet show program called Lean on Me: Kids Helping Kids. The show, which Lavell wrote, is performed in schools to educate students on cancer and other illnesses and how important it is to be accepting. He certainly understands what these kids are feeling, as Lavell missed his first year of high school due to cancer treatments.
“Many times kids don’t know how to interact with a child who has cancer,” says Lavell. “So, instead of embracing these children who may look different because they have no hair, they make fun of them. We aim to educate other children to avoid any bullying or teasing,” he says.
The truth is, Lavell says, the NCCF will “always be a part of my life. I would never change my illness. It may sound crazy, but for me, cancer has been a blessing. It enriched my life in ways I didn’t think anything could.” In fact, laughs Lavell, “I have visions of myself in a wheelchair as an old man serving as the NCCF goodwill ambassador.”
Contact Geoffrey W. Lavell at Better Homes & Gardens Real Estate - Desert Properties in Henderson, Nev., via e-mail: email@example.com. Learn more about Camp Cartwheel at the Nevada Childhood Cancer Foundation's web site.