A Special Beginning
When Tom and Sheila Baker walked into the office of John Dooley, Director of the Northern Virginia 4-H Educational Center in Front Royal, Virginia on a late August day in 1982, they weren’t fully aware of the almost surreal chain of events of which they were a part. But what Tom did know was that something he has come to regard as “divine intervention” had brought them to this point.
Tom and Sheila had lost their daughter, Julie, to lymphoma in 1976, following a year of treatments at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland. While at the NCI, which is part of the vast National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Bakers met other children with cancer and their families and shared their struggle. After Julie’s death, they struggled with a way to improve the situation for those other families. In May of ’82, Tom picked up one of his wife’s outdated magazines and noticed a story about a camp that had just started in update New York for children with cancer.
“Something clicked,” Tom later recalled. “It was as close as I’ve ever felt to a divine calling.” He picked up the phone and made arrangements to visit the camp later that summer with Sheila. Once there, they knew immediately what they had to do. They called around to find out about local camping facilities and were led to Dooley and the 4-H Center in Front Royal, Virginia. The Bakers walked into Dooley’s office unannounced and asked if they could talk with him about the 4-H camping program Dooley was conducting and the feasibility of catering that program to children with cancer.
What the Bakers didn’t realize at the time was that Dooley had been considering his own special needs camp, but had just gotten off the phone hours earlier, where he was told that the group he was courting couldn’t work out the logistics for a camping program. Fresh from this disappointment, and in a receptive mood, Dooley welcomed Tom and Sheila into his office and called in the only member of his summer staff still on-site, a rising college sophomore named Dave Smith who was himself destined to play an important role in the organization’s history.
A Camp is Born
That first meeting led to a discussion with Dr. Phil Pizzo, the oncologist who had treated Julie Baker, and plans were soon underway for Camp Fantastic, a one-week adventure for children ages 7-17 who were current cancer patients or within 3 years of treatment. With funding from local Rotary clubs and other donors, Camp Fantastic welcomed 29 children in August 1983. Medical staffing was provided by Dr. Pizzo and a cast of dozens of NIH employees and special volunteers. The campers enjoyed traditional camp activities, such as canoeing, hiking, swimming, and campfires, plus magic shows, musical entertainment, and other special touches.
As Camp Fantastic was gearing up, so was Special Love Inc, the IRS 501(c)(3) organization the Bakers founded to sponsor the camp. Special Love was incorporated on January 1, 1983 and served at first as the fiduciary agent of Camp Fantastic, a role that would change dramatically in the very near future.
A Community Grows
The Bakers started Camp Fantastic and its sponsoring organization, Special Love, with the idea that one week a year was sufficient to meet the recreational needs of children with cancer. They soon found, however, that parents and siblings wanted in on the act. The first Family Weekend program was held in April 1984 as an introduction to Camp Fantastic for parents who were nervous about sending their sick son or daughter away for a week. The event was soon followed by a similar outing in the fall and a holiday party in December. Each of these new events was conducted under the umbrella of Special Love and each confirmed the need for year-round programming to bring together this unique audience to share their experience and gain coping skills from each other. Programs designed exclusively for young adults with cancer, siblings, parents and even teenage friends gradually emerged and helped round out Special Love’s services to these distinct audiences, each of which is described in more detail throughout the Special Love website.
Special Love hired its first full-time director in 1987. It was Dave Smith, the same 4-H camp staffer who sat in on the original planning meeting between the Bakers and John Dooley. He has held that post ever since. Soon after Dave came aboard, Special Love added financial assistance in the form of college scholarships and emergency relief to provide help outside the camp environment and to keep Special Love’s “community” intact and in touch year-round. Special Love learned early on what many other people have since discovered: when one member of a family has cancer, the whole family has cancer.
Special Love now sponsors more than 16 events each year that offer children with cancer, their families and friends the simple message that “you are special, you are not alone, and you are loved.” And all it took was a little divine intervention.