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Hinsdale, Illinois |

Published July 31, 2008                                                          

Traveling zoo captures
the meaning of fun

By Polly Rix

   Maddy Bergstrom loved wearing a cute, snugly chinchilla. Not the fur coat variety — a real live chinchilla.
   The 10-year-old had the awesome experience Monday when Wellness House opened its doors to a traveling zoo.
   Beth Wagner and helper Emilia Marchan from Scales and Tales brought Big Boy the parrot, Pookie the opossum, Olivia the squealing pig as well as a basket of baby chicks, three snakes and other animals for the kids to touch, see and learn about.
   “I loved it,” Maddy said.
   Meagan Mitchell, 9, enjoyed the chinchillas and seeing the animals up close.
   “I thought it was awesome — I love the animals. You can’t touch the animals at the zoo,” she said.
   The zoo camp was part of Wellness House’s summer program offered to children who are dealing with a cancer diagnosis in their family. The 90-minute summer camps are confidence builders for the kids, explained program director Marnie McHale.
   “They learn mom’s not here but I can do things,” she said. “When a parent is sick, they lose confidence.”
   Program associate Betsy Rubenstein facilitates the counseling sessions for children and teens and organizes the day camps, which were offered seven Mondays and Wednesdays in July.
   “It’s a camp for self-esteem building and to have fun,” she said. “It’s hard to have fun when there is cancer going on in the family.”
   Attending camp lets kids know that it’s OK to have a good time, she said.
   Kids ages 6 to 12 are invited. At any given camp, 18 to 20 kids participate.
   “Every day is a little different,” she said. Campers this year enjoyed a scavenger hunt, a visit from a magician and circus day, among other activities. Zoo day is very popular, Rubenstein said.
   “When someone in the family has cancer there is no time to go to the zoo. On zoo day kids have a chance to interact with animals.”
   Camp time also provides a break for parents.
   “Parents drop them off and have an hour and a half to themselves,” Rubenstein said. “Some families come twice in a day — for the camp and for the group (counseling sessions).”
   Teen volunteers are paired with campers.
   “It’s neat for the kids to have teenage buddies. They love to be with the older kids,” she said.
   Fenwick sophomore Molly Ray, 15, of Hinsdale has enjoyed helping with the camps this year. Ray’s mom had heard about the camp and suggested she volunteer.
   “When I was younger I had cancer. It’s really close to me,” she said. “I think it’s really neat to take their minds off of things.”
   Eighteen-year-old Mike Milligan enjoys hanging out with the kids.
   “It’s fun here. It reminds me of playing with my cousins at a family party,” said Milligan of LaGrange Park.
   As with all Wellness House programs, the camp is free to anyone who is dealing with a cancer diagnosis in the family.
   “I’m the one who is there running the groups when they are talking about how hard it is as a kid dealing with cancer, so it’s neat to see the kids smile and have fun,” Rubenstein said.
   Downers Grove mom Doris Chlapecka said her sons, James, 7, and Ryan, 5, have been attending the camps for the past month.
   “Now that I’m done with treatment I need to focus on them. They’re tough little guys,” she said. “They enjoy being just kids.”
   This year’s summer camp has been a way for Julie Schlegel’s kids — Sam, 9, and Nikki, 8 — to reconnect with Wellness House and some of the friends they have made over the past 18 months.
   When the kids attended the camp last year, it had been only six months since they lost their dad. After 18 months of support, the kids stopped attending the grief program in April.
   “This year it has a little different feel,” Schlegel said. “I wanted them to reconnect with kids who have been through what they’ve been through.”
   “This community makes them feel they are not outsiders,” she added. “You need to be with people who have done this, who have been through this.”
   Christy Johnson has brought her son Colton, 6, from Westmont as often as possible to this summer’s camps.
   She thought that it would be great for him to have something fun to do that had nothing to do with her being diagnosed with cancer. 
   “He loves it. He asks, ‘Why can’t this go on all summer?’ ”

Making a Difference is a yearlong partnership between
The Hinsdalean and Wellness House to increase awareness
about the organization, which works to encourage, educate and
emotionally support people working to overcome the effects of cancer.



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