The Healing Power of Camp

“Superheroes sometimes come in small packages.”

Jimmy Arena

So reads the tagline on the GiantKids Web site, a testament to the spirit and philosophy of this New York State charity helping to serve the needs and hopes and dreams of ill children and their families in communities throughout the state.

In support of this mission, Ivan and Karla Bellotto, owners of Camp Kiwi in Mahopac, N.Y., throw open the doors of their camp each year for “Camp Days”–a daylong opportunity for some of the charity’s children and families to push away the stress and heartache of dealing with their illness and instead get down to the serious business of having fun, together.

In 2005, six-year-old Jimmy Arena and his family attended “Camp Days” to try to forget, for a moment, the valiant fight he was putting up against an inoperable brain tumor. Little did anyone know a connection was made that day between the Bellotto and Arena families. Little did anyone know that Jimmy was nearing the end of his battle. He would lose his fight that September.

Picking Up The Pieces

Left behind, the Arena family went about picking up the pieces of their life. For two years, they had struggled with Jimmy’s disease, pouring all of their resources into medical care for their son and leaving little to fund their dream of enlarging their 1,400-square-foot home. With six children, the home was overflowing and needed care.

Taking a chance, Gina Arena applied to ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” hoping to be able to give her children a home where each child could have his or her own space or, at the very least, come together as a family and share a meal in a proper dining room.

On April 20, 2006, the cast and crew of the ABC show bulldozed into town, trailed by 80 employees from the Alure Company (a local home-improvement firm), 200 contractors and 500 volunteers–all dedicated to making one of the famly’s dreams come true.

Initially, the plans to rebuild the Arena home were kept quiet (the goal is to announce the project on the air), but once the hammers started swinging, the activity picked up in force and the town grapevine went to work, eventually spreading the word to the Bellottos at Camp Kiwi, who remembered the Arena family and decided to see if they could help in the healing process too.

The Bellottos tried to reach the producers of the show to lend their support, but all attempts were futile. Undaunted, they traveled to the work site, networked their way to the producers, and finally convinced them to allow the Bellottos to give their special gift to the Arena family–a camp scholarship for each of their six children.

Gina Arena was thrilled with the scholarships. As the family paused to fight Jimmy’s illness, so many things had been placed on the back burner. Her other children had not had the time or opportunity to just be kids, to do silly crafts, or even to enjoy the company of other children. Camp seemed the perfect antidote, a chance to catch up on the childhood moments they had missed.

The Healing Power Of Camp

The Arena children, however, weren’t so sure.

As they transitioned into camp, they were apprehensive. They had only been to camp one day during “Camp Days,” and were not sure how it worked or what was expected of them. But, like all first-time campers, the Arena kids were quickly won over by Ivan Bellotto’s infectious enthusiasm and the special efforts of all the counselors, who had been prepped on the situation.

Within a few days the Arena children felt that attending camp was their reward for showing strength and faith during such a trying time and, as they romped through the 20-acre camp with the snow-white beach, pools, rock climbing wall and enough activities to engage even the shyest child, they began to heal. Their personalities blossomed, and they quickly grew to be one of the “gang.”

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