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The cover of the Spring 2007 SF State Magazine features two penguins, heads bent together as they view their offspring on the ground below.

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Alumni & FriendsJohn Bell, wearing a baseball cap, holds a newly caught fish in his hand, earning an appreciative grin from a young camper. Photo courtesy of Okizu Foundation

Respite from Worry

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
campers themselves.



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Last modified June 19, 2007, by the Office of Public Affairs and Publications