This summer, 19-year-old Jessica Cooper fell in love.
With an 8-year-old cancer patient. With an idea she believes changed her life.
Cooper, a 2005 Perryville High School graduate, heard about Camp Quality while volunteering for another not-for-profit organization.
The camp in Stewartsville, Mo., targets children who have suffered or are suffering from cancer. It's a week-long respite for the children and their families from doctors' offices, medical bills and other cancer-related stress. At Camp Quality, the word "victim" is not part of the vocabulary. At camp, they're not cancer kids. They're just kids, said Cooper.
"It's the happiest I think I've ever been, seeing all those kids with positive attitudes," said Cooper. "It's amazing to be around them. It made me look at my life in a different way. I want to do all I can to help them."
So Cooper, a student at Maryville University in St. Louis, has started organizing local fund-raisers to help bring in money for future camps.
The first will be held Aug. 13 at the Perry Park Center, where Cooper has organized a swimathon with musical entertainment and refreshments.
The camp is a not-for-profit, all-volunteer organization based on similar camps in Australia. The first in the United States was started by a Missouri woman in 1986. Since then, the camp in Stewartsville has grown from 40 to more than 100 children from throughout Missouri and Kansas.
The camp is free for the cancer patients and their families. Daily activities range from swimming, beauty makeovers, crafts, parades, miniature golf, talent shows, dances and a petting zoo. There's musical entertainment, fireworks and even a water fight using local fire department trucks.
The camp also includes a floral shop to send flowers to fellow campers, family or volunteers, as well as a gift shop. And everything is free for the campers, who range from age 6 to 16.
Before volunteering as a camp companion, Cooper first filled out an application, then had a face-to-face interview with camp organizers and underwent a background check.
She was assigned as a companion for Marina, an 8-year-old diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and whose Hispanic parents did not speak English.
"The word victim or anything like that is never mentioned there. It's all about fun," Cooper said. "It's basically a big party all the time."
Some of the campers are in remission. Others are terminal and have little time left.
"This is what these kids look forward to. For some, it's a last hoorah," said Cooper. "Here, they're like every other kid, like they've never experienced a pain in the world when in reality, they have."
Even a month after camp ended, Cooper still speaks with Marina once a week.
"She told me when she got back home she cried because camp was over," said Cooper. "There, she had the opportunity to be with kids her age who didn't look at her differently. She was just another kid."
Cooper is working to encourage local businesses to support Camp Quality as well.
"It's really important for the community to know that we have a lot of kids in our own area diagnosed with cancer," she said. "And I want those families to know there's something like this out there."
For information about Camp Quality, visit www.campqualitynwmo.org.
335-6611, extension 128