Each summer hundreds of children diagnosed with cancer check
their worries at the cabin doorsteps of Northern California's Camp Okizu.
For a week they are free of hospitals, free of anxiety and free to do
something very important: Have fun. They have camp founder John
Bell (B.A., '77) to thank for this.
Camp Okizu, named for the Sioux word for "unity," began in
1982 with a promise Bell made to a dying man. As a volunteer at Hospice
of Marin, Bell pledged to fulfill the cancer patient's final wish, to
help young people. Later that same year Bell enlisted the help of pediatric
oncologists at Bay Area hospitals to launch the first weeklong sleepaway
camp for children with cancer. Twenty-eight children stayed at facilities
donated by the Camp Fire Girls in Nevada City.
Bell went on to recruit more volunteers and donors and continued the
camp at various rental sites. "You have to keep talking and showing
people what's going on," he says of his daily efforts to garner
support from foundations and private donors. After 18 years, his dream
of a permanent campground with its own medical facility became a reality.
In 2000, Okizu relocated to 500 acres in Oreville, California, where
campers now enjoy fishing, rafting, hiking and navigating a ropes course,
free of charge. The dream has been an expensive one for Bell. When the
property's nearly $4 million interest-free loan fell through at the
last minute, he and board member Dr. Mike Amylon signed their names
to the mortgage.
Today Okizu offers seven different types of retreats that bring emotional
support to children with cancer as well as to their parents and siblings.
"Childhood cancer is a family disease," Bell says. "It's
draining on everyone, emotionally and financially." While Okizu's
on-site doctors and nurses put parents' minds at ease, the camp's resident
mythological creature, the mischievous Tajar, also lends a hand. He
takes the blame for any embarrassing accidents such as bed-wetting,
a side effect of chemotherapy.
KGO-TV journalist Cheryl Jennings (attended, '70s) calls herself
"a huge John Bell fan." She reports on the camp each year and is impressed by Bell's "dedication,
enthusiasm and energy for the kids." She's not alone. Bell's Novato
office is filled with awards for his work, including the Jefferson Award
for Public Service.
But Bell says his greatest reward is "watching children learn that
they have the ability to change lives," pointing out that more
than half of Okizu's 500 volunteers were once