By Allison M. Roberts Staff Writer
When Tom Russell first began putting Camp Victory together 10 years ago, he never imagined it would grow into what it is now.
Russell, co-creator of the camp and co-founder of The Children’s Security Blanket, knew that the kids being served by the local nonprofit needed a place to just be kids.
“In the first camp, we had five or six kids out here. We did not know what we were doing,” Russell said. “I researched every camp I could find across the Southeast and Northwest. I read, I called people and I called camp counselors. I had an idea about 10 years ago that the best thing we could do was create a camp for these kids.”
Camp Victory, located at Optimist Acres in Pauline, is just one of the services provided by The Children’s Security Blanket, Executive Director Laura Allen said.
Allen said she has seen the camp really grow in her three years with the organization. Last year, there were 15 children at the camp. This year, they are expecting to see close to 200 youngsters over the course of the week.
The first year was a little chaotic, Russell said. Vickie Holt, her husband Steve, and Doug Rayner, a biology professor at Wofford College, were just a few of the people instrumental in getting the camp up and running.
Each year, Rayner comes to camp and takes the kids on nature walks where they learn about trees, plants and wildlife around the camp. He also brings in reptiles for the children to pet and hold.
“I couldn’t do it without Doug,” Russell said. “Those kids worship him, and he holds their attention and teaches them.”
Vickie Holt got involved when she met Russell at a community event at her church. When he told her about his idea and the children it would help, Holt said she was on board.
Holt had directed camps for years, been active in her church’s children’s church and also knew where to find artists, magicians and people who draw caricatures.
“We just pulled it together,” Holt said. “Tom got the donations and the community to support it, and Steve and I worked out the logistics of how it’d work.”
It’s been rewarding to watch the camp grow and to see how excited the children are about coming to camp, Holt said. They talk about it all year, she said, and for some it becomes a goal to fight for — to be well enough to attend the camp the next year.
The camp is designed to be a family experience, Allen said.
The Children’s Security Blanket not only takes care of the child battling cancer, but also of siblings and parents. When camp rolls around, the brothers, sisters, moms and dads are also invited to attend.
The nonprofit services a number of families with children who travel for treatment. Allen said there are some who travel to Greenville, Charleston and even New York for the life-saving treatments they need.
They don’t get to have a normal kid’s life, Allen said, which is why Camp Victory is so important. It gives them the chance to spend a few days doing the kinds of things children do.
“We just want them to be kids,” Allen said. “We want them to laugh, run and play. For them, that’s this opportunity where they don’t have to think about what they’re going through.”
Lexi Wells, 15 of Anderson, has been coming to Camp Victory since she was 6 years old. She enjoys being able to fish, sing songs and spend time with her friends.
Wells said she has friends who somewhat understand what she goes through each day, but it’s “pretty amazing” to spend a few days with other children who are battling cancer or are cancer survivors, because they really understand what it’s like.
“They encourage me to keep fighting and never give up,” Wells said.
Sadikiem McCullough of Landrum started coming to camp when he was 4 years old. McCullough, now 8, is known to most of the long-time volunteers as “Little Man” and loves coming to camp. He said he likes the nature walks with Rayner, getting to hold snakes and spending time with the other children there.
McCullough said the Children’s Security Blanket means everything to him and his family.
“It’s important, because it gives me everything I need,” McCullough said.