HATTIESBURG, Miss. – (May 13, 2019) Paul B. Johnson State Park sits nestled just off of Highway 49 with acres of beautiful pines and a lake that stretches out just far enough. For the last thirty years, the park has welcomed Camp Bluebird, the first camp for adult cancer patients and survivors in Mississippi. Each spring campers, counselors, and volunteers gather for two and a half days to enjoy crafts, music, and good company.
“This camp is wonderful. People look forward to it every year, and this year was the biggest camp we’ve ever had. There were 86 campers signed up, and we had about 140 people there, including counselors and other volunteers. Our counselors are wonderful and great at taking care of the campers and making them feel welcome. It’s just like they’re family,” said Joe Marcello, oncology service line administrator, Forrest General Hospital.
On the first afternoon of camp, everyone met under the pavilion. Smoke from the nearby fire hung in the air, and the campers buzzed with excitement and energy. Although late night storms threatened an appearance, the mood was positive and bright as Lagena Everette, RN, announced the first activity, which was to write down negative thoughts or feelings on pieces of paper and burn them away in the fire.
“This activity is called a burning ceremony, and it’s a common practice meant to clear the mind and help people to let go of negativity that might be holding them back. Cancer is an emotionally tumultuous and draining disease. We think activities like this set the stage for the weekend, and what we always hope will be a fun, transformative and restorative weekend,” said Lagena Everette, RN.
This medically supervised retreat allows campers to relax and be seen as people rather than patients. Camp Bluebird offers a safe environment among people experiencing the same treatments and issues where campers can have fun. Campers are allowed to fish, enjoy boat rides, and other physical activities they want to participate in.
“Camp Bluebird is an experience you can’t explain. I see these people every day at the Cancer Center, but when I see them at camp, they’re different people. They’re having a great time; they don’t think about how bad they feel. They’re here because this is like one big support group,” said Marcello.
The park features a small chapel named for Camp Bluebird. Built in 1989, the chapel comes equipped with pews, stained glass, and a beautiful pipe organ. Campers enjoy multiple sessions in the chapel with services provided by different religious denominations and churches from around the Pine Belt. This year they heard from Father Tommy Conway of St. Fabian’s in Hattiesburg; Rev. Terry Weems of New Life Church in Columbia; Shannon Slover of First Baptist Church in Laurel; and Rev. Roger Moore, director of pastoral services at Forrest General. Torsky Williams, a cancer survivor who now attends camp as a counselor, says spending time in the chapel is one of her favorite things about Camp Bluebird.
“When I come inside of the chapel, it’s like everything washes away. I don’t have to worry about anything; it’s just about relaxation. It’s a time to focus on yourself rather than the cancer. Camp Bluebird has encouraged me so much that I tell other people about it. Sometimes you don’t really have to say anything; it’s just about being in the presence of other survivors,” said Williams.
In addition to chapel, arts and crafts, and games, the campers are treated to some entertainment by a local gospel band, Answered Prayer, led by Vance Green, vice president, Forrest General.
Green said, “We, Answered Prayer, have been performing at Camp Bluebird for seven years now. It’s without a doubt the most anticipated event on our schedule every year. We love being there with the campers and volunteers. These campers’ personalities and moods are infectious! Usually, before the concert is over, we have several of them up there singing with us!”
Camp Bluebird wouldn’t be possible without its volunteers. Everyone from dieticians, medical staff, and counselors to Answered Prayers, pastors, and members of the local Elks Lodge, who facilitate games, donates their time to the camp. Volunteers and counselors may come back as many years as they would like to participate. Some counselors, like insert name, are former patients who volunteer as a way to “pay it forward.” Still others, like Forrest General’s Employee of the Year, Chuck Pierce, are long-time counselors who continue to come back because they see the difference the camp can make. Pierce has volunteered for 29 years of the camp’s 30-year history.
“I come back every year because Camp Bluebird helps me to treat my patients better. I think anyone who works in healthcare should come here, because it helps you relate and actually see how a patient feels. It’s easy to get caught up in the technical aspects of treatment, but we need to be able to offer comfort and be a friend,” said Pierce.
For more information about Camp Bluebird or Forrest General’s other oncology services, visit forrestgeneral.com.
Caption: Campers and counselors gather in front of the lake for a photo.