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Cindy Hay Johnson: Executive Director of Camp Happy Days

Camp Happy Days is on a mission to provide fun-filled opportunities for kids with cancer and their families. Between their summer camps, teen programs, holiday festivals, therapy offerings, and financial assistance, there’s not much that Camp Happy Days doesn’t do for its families. In case that wasn’t impressive enough, did we mention that all of this is cost-free? As the Executive Director of this amazing organization, Cindy gets to see kids take a step back from their illness and really feel like kids.

Can you tell us about the kids and families you work with?

We work with children battling cancer and their entire families. Many people don’t understand what a traumatic and long-term issue it is to have a child with cancer, it really affects the whole family. Camp Happy Days does everything that the doctors don’t do. There’s a good percentage of childhood cancer survivors who end up relapsing and virtually all of them have long term side effects. Camp Happy Days serves 1,700-1,800 people, 700 of which are kids with cancer. The rest are their parents and siblings, who we provide resources for as well.

What do your programs entail?

We have an annual summer camp for kids with cancer and their siblings, which is our flagship program. Even kids who are in the middle of treatment can come to camp because of our amazing medical staff who work with us every step of the way. Camp gives siblings the opportunity to bond with other siblings who are going through a similar situation. We do weekends for our teens and pre-teens throughout the year and offer support groups for teenagers to connect with one another. Dream Dates are super fun day-long, individualized events offered to kids who are preparing for a long hospital visit or just finished chemotherapy and are in need of a special day. We work with hospitals across the state to fulfill holiday gift lists for families so that they don’t have to stress about buying presents. Our goal is to give these kids the chance to be confident, independent, and hopeful people. Our programs magically do that through team building, counseling, and giving them a chance to have fun.

How did COVID affect your work?

We’ve really missed the in-person interactions and the joy that comes with them. Children with cancer are incredibly vulnerable when it comes to COVID. For our kids in the hospital, they could only have 1 parent with them at a time, so it was a huge stress on the entire family. We immediately knew we needed to increase our financial assistance program and got to work straight away on that. Instead of meeting in person, we transitioned to virtual programming for our kids, pre-teens, teens, and families. Whether it was reading a bedtime story, playing games, or giving them the space to talk, our virtual programs offered a small release from the scary reality. We also started doing outdoor activities like park days or drive-in movies to help keep our community alive. I think Camp Happy Days did a great job of asking our parents and caregivers what they needed, and giving them that support, whether it was financial or emotional.

What is the best part of your job?

It’s definitely seeing the smiles of those children. Children with cancer are unbelievably wise and kind. I will never forget a young camper we had who fought so hard just so she could make it to summer camp. She sadly passed away a few weeks after leaving camp, and I am so grateful for that time with her. In her last days, she said, “It’s not how long you live, it’s how deeply you live”, and that has always stuck with me. Everyday I think about what I can do for these kids in the time that they have. Seeing the magic of Camp Happy Days keeps me going, despite it being hard work.


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