Back in 1998 JoLanne Hanson received a frantic call from her friend Kate Bach Davis. Davis was volunteering at Phoenix Children’s Hospital in Arizona and had a deeply unhappy 8-year-old cancer patient on her hands: the girl had been airlifted to the hospital from summer camp, and was distraught at missing the evening’s campfire sing-along. Davis turned to Hanson for help because Hanson was working as an event planner for Target where she focused exclusively on the retailer’s partnership with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
“I said ‘She wants a campfire sing-a-long, so have a campfire sing-a-long! Get a guitar from the music therapy department, make a fake fire, and make her happy,’” says Hanson. That small act of faux camping in Phoenix inspired the duo to create Camp Get-A-Well-A, an in-hospital summer “camp” for sick kids that brings the outdoors in.
Not a tough sell
Of course, the leap from fake campfire to nonprofit wasn’t as simple as cutting out construction-paper logs. Hanson admits they were “winging it” at first, but decided that if they could pull off a Get-A-Well-A camp at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, considered the top pediatric hospital in the country, their idea would have legs. The hospital gave Get-A-Well-A the green light, and in 2000 Hanson and Davis staged a five-day camp for roughly 300 patients. With a team of volunteers the duo ran multiple arts and crafts projects, filled the hospital’s gym with tents and sleeping bags, and even put a canoe in the therapy pool.
The hospital’s overwhelmingly positive reception to the camp coincided with a change in Hanson’s job at Target; instead of working with St. Jude’s, she was being moved to event planning for sports and parades. “I fell in love with doing events for sick kids and their families with Target,” says Hanson. “I didn’t mind being gone at Thanksgiving if I was working with St. Jude, but I did mind being gone at Thanksgiving to supervise the handler of the Target mascot in the Macy’s parade.”
Hanson left Target in August 2001 to devote herself entirely to being Camp Get-A-Well-A’s executive director and is the camp’s lone staff member (Davis, who now lives in New York, is a volunteer). She began pitching the concept to hospitals, including St. Paul’s Gillette Children’s Hospital. Jessica Miller, a certified child life specialist at Gillette, says it wasn’t a tough sell. “JoLanne showed me pictures of camps at other hospitals and told me the theory behind the camp, and it seemed like a great idea,” explains Miller. Now Hanson brings Get-A-Well-A to Gillette for a full week in August each year, and comes in twice a month for smaller activities like crafts or even a dog show. “She makes the kids feel like they’re not in the hospital anymore,” says Miller.
Get-A-Well-A’s reputation quickly spread, to the point that Paul Newman’s own Hole in the Wall Camps organization contacted Hanson about following in Get-A-Well-A’s footsteps. “They caught wind of us five years ago after coming to Philadelphia to see what we were about,” says Hanson of Hole in the Wall, which she describes as “the Disneyland of camps for sick kids.” Now Newman’s organization does outreach projects (as opposed to five-day camps like Hanson) at various children’s hospitals based on Get-A-Well-A’s model.
Today Get-A-Well-A runs camps each summer in five hospitals ranging from local (Gillette, Shriners) to far-flung (Dell Children’s in Austin, Phoenix Children’s) and the name has become one parents know well. Last summer Hanson received an e-mail from a mother who wanted to know exactly when Get-A-Well-A would be at Gillette so she could schedule her child’s surgery accordingly. Hanson understands that desire. “Parents are especially thankful because they get to see their kids laughing and doing something fun, so they don’t feel like they’re missing out so much because they just had a carnival, or completed a craft project.”
Part of that appreciation comes from the fact that Get-A-Well-A can adapt its projects and games to the needs of young patients with varying illnesses and abilities. All the camp’s crafts come in pre-assembled kits that can be brought to hospital rooms if patients can’t join in group activities — Hanson has even used a hospital’s closed-circuit television system to broadcast a demonstration to isolated patients — and adjusting to the needs of eager campers is nothing new for Get-A-Well-A volunteers. “We’ll tie-dye in an emesis basin!” laughs Hanson.
Mark Egge’s son Brogen, 4, was at Gillette for several weeks to have a neurosurgical procedure, a fact that took a backseat to the silly string game he played at a Get-A-Well-A carnival during his stay. “He loved it,” says Egge. “The camp had a lot of friendly volunteers, and they let him play the games over and over again.” Egge adds that Brogen will most likely have to return to Gillette for further care, and the promise of Get-A-Well-A will be part of the preparation. “Being able to tell him there will be dog shows and crafts while he’s there is definitely a big help.”
Though the economy has hurt Get-A-Well-A’s bottom line, it hasn’t stopped Hanson’s plans to bring Get-A-Well-A to more markets. To that end she is working to make the organization community-based, which means cities like Denver and Cleveland would be affiliates of the main Minnesota office. “If we’re community-based then the people in each city that want to have camp are the ones who raise the money for their camp, do the event coordination, and the execution,” explains Hanson. “We really see this as a way to expand.”
Monica Wright is assistant editor of Minnesota Parent.