Founded by Jim and Connie Miles in 1984 after the death of their daughter, Marcia, H.I.S. K.I.D.S. (Happiness Is Serving Kids In Distress Situations) aims to decrease the devastation caused by childhood cancer for both kids and their families, says assistant executive director Jayme Bellamy.
The nonprofit’s biggest program is its summer camp, a five-day, five-night trip to Camp Wartburg in Waterloo, Ill., that’s open to kids and teens with cancer and their siblings. There’s also a leaders-in-training program for teens 15 to 17 years old who want to learn to be counselors and leaders. The camp includes activities like swimming, archery, a challenge ropes course, arts and crafts, and therapeutic activities. There’s also a lesson every day, and the campers get the opportunity to share and talk about their feelings. “They’re kids, so sometimes it turns into, You get that treatment too? Oh my gosh!” Bellamy says. “It’s less isolating—they don’t feel like they’re the weird one anymore. The majority of them are the only kid in their parish or school who’s going through this.” She notes all of the activities are modified for the medical needs of each child, whether they’re in a wheelchair or have other needs, and a nurse is always on the campsite, as well.
The experience also is helpful for many siblings, who often get less attention from parents and friends, or take on extra responsibilities during a difficult time. “It’s nice for them to have their special time, too,” Bellamy says. “They get to just be a kid for a week.” In 2010, the camp was honored as the Outstanding Special Needs Camp Program in the St. Louis area by Variety the Children’s Charity of St. Louis.
H.I.S. K.I.D.S. serves a total of 2,000 kids per year—and including the parents, approximately 4,000 to 6,000 clients are served, Bellamy notes. In addition to the camp, yearround activities help families network with each other, and cope with any problems that arise. The nonprofit puts on activities in area hospitals, and hosts a spring party with the Easter bunny, a fall festival and Christmas celebration with Santa. “It’s a medically safe environment,” Bellamy notes. “You can’t bring a kid on treatment to the mall because of all the other kids and germs.”
Emergency services include a year-round food pantry that helps families who might become financially strapped as a result of the illness, along with a Thanksgiving meal donation program. “They’re dealing with medical bills, and often one of the parents has to quit a job or drastically reduce their hours,” Bellamy says. Additionally, a teen program offers spring and fall weekend retreats that teach life skills and leadership training. “They get out of the hospital and meet other kids,” she adds. “Going through treatment is pretty isolating, because they’re missing all the high school stuff.”
Bellamy’s own experience is indicative of what makes so many H.I.S. K.I.D.S. campers come back year after year, often joining the leadership program or becoming counselors themselves. “I didn’t have a brother or sister with cancer, but I grew up in Highland, Ill., (where the nonprofit is based) and they had a space in the teen leadership program,” she says. “After the first year, I was totally hooked and wanted to come back. It was so happy and supportive, with people singing and having a great time. People sometimes ask me, How can you be around sick kids all the time? Isn’t it depressing? But in reality, they’re so happy to be out and enjoying life. Camp is the happiest week of my year. The attitude the kids have is a lesson for adults and kids alike: to appreciate the moment. You get your priorities straight when you see it.”
Volunteer: Barbie Ricken
Barbie Ricken first became involved with H.I.S. K.I.D.S. the summer after her older sister, Mary Beth, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. “It was right before I turned 13, and she was one year and one month older than me. We were really close growing up,” Ricken says. “(Camp) was the best experience for me. As a sibling of someone who has cancer, hopefully you don’t know anyone else in that situation, but no one else is going through everything that you feel. It was the first time I ever felt comfortable talking about cancer with people.”
Through the years, the feeling that H.I.S. K.I.D.S. was part of Ricken’s family only grew. When Mary Beth passed away the following January, she almost didn’t want to go back, because when she experienced it before, both of her sisters had been there. “I didn’t feel I had a place there, but I’m glad I went back,” she says. “A lot of people did amazing things when my sister was actively sick, like bringing us meals, but after she passed away most of that stopped. H.I.S. K.I.D.S. didn’t blink and didn’t think twice. It was like, We’re not going to stop inviting you because your sister’s not here anymore, and I’ve been coming back ever since.”
Ricken made the transition from camper to counselor and is now one of the camp directors. She also works on other H.I.S. K.I.D.S. efforts year-round, as she attends the Goldfarb School of Nursing at Barnes-Jewish College and works as a patient care technician at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. “I spend every waking moment of my free time in the H.I.S. K.I.D.S. office, returning phone calls and answering emails. A lot of people think I work there,” she jokes. She says it’s more than just a nonprofit—it’s a support group. “If I ever need anything, they will be there; they’ll call me on my sister’s anniversary, and they get it without me having to explain myself. I want to be able to have more kids realize that they’re not alone.”