Camp Care lets children with cancer enjoy trips, get away from treatment

The youngsters in Camp Care, a weeklong camp for children with cancer and their siblings, gathered on their last day to get autographs — from their friends and counselors and from a few special guests, including LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger and other Tigers.

The LSU Football Operations Building, where the players practice and work out, was the campers’ last big field trip of the summer.

“It’s just fun!” said Samara Preston, 12, of how to best describe Camp Care, a free program of Cancer Services of Greater Baton Rouge.

Samara attended camp for several years with her little sister, Courtney, 7, who completed treatment for leukemia last year and is doing well.

The camp is always an adventure and was a special one, too, for this year’s volunteer camp director.

Courtney Lamar, 26, has long been a part of the camp, but took on the director’s duties for the first time this year.

She was inspired to get involved in Camp Care several years ago by the example of her father, Charles Lamar, a longtime supporter of Cancer Services.

“I was looking for some way to give, after my freshman year in college,” said Courtney Lamar, who earned double undergraduate degrees in psychology and sociology at the University of Southern California.

She first volunteered as a Camp Care counselor in 2006.

“Every summer I’d come back for camp,” said Lamar, who graduated from college in 2009.

After she went to work as an educator at the Marine Mammal Center, a marine-life rehab center in San Francisco, Lamar continued her summer volunteer work with Camp Care, using unpaid leave time from her employer, who is very supportive of her volunteer work here, she said.

Jana Poché, who served as the volunteer camp director for the past 18 years, was on hand this summer, having fun with the campers as a counselor this time.

Poché, the mother of two, said she considers Camp Care her “third child.”

She decided it would be a good thing to bring a new face and fresh perspective to the camp.

“I waited a long time to find someone capable of feeling about this like I do, and that’s Courtney,” Poché said of the new director.

Like Courtney Lamar, many of the counselors at camp return year after year and former campers are among them.

Michael Conger, who turned 14 this month, plans to be a counselor when he turns 16, said his mother, Laurina Conger. His older siblings have been counselors, too, she said.

“That first year, I was terrified to let him go (to camp),” she said of Michael’s first summer at Camp Care in 2005, the year he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

Michael is now cancer-free.

“He came home that first day ... talking and talking,” excited about his day, Conger said, adding it was the first time that year that the then 7-year-old was back to being his old self.

“That’s a priceless gift,” Conger said.

At the indoor practice field at the Football Operations Building on July 12, the children and youth of Camp Care spread out across the field; a few footballs were in play, too, and there were some amazing touchdowns.

“It is the kids,” Lamar said of her love for the camp and the children. “It’s very humbling to see what these children have been through, yet they never lose spirit, never lose love. They’re always joyous and happy.

“I feel lucky they let me hang out with them every year.”