Video, photos & story -- In 10th year, Kay's Kamp hosts 60 children in Middletown for a week of fun with a circus theme

Kay’s Kamp for children with cancer celebrated its 10th year “under the big top,” with a circus theme July 22-28.

What started with 11 campers at the former St. Joseph’s Industrial School in Clayton has grown to 60 campers at St. Andrew’s School in Middletown.

“These kids are amazing. You should see the stilt walkers,” said Lisa Romano, the volunteer media coordinator for Kay’s Kamp. “[The circus staff] has done wonders with these kids. When they first saw the performers Sunday, the kids said, ‘I can’t do that. There’s no way I can do that,’ but now they’re all performing like pros.”

The idea for the circus actually started with last year’s campers.

“Kids submit their ideas for next year’s theme and vote,” said Romano.

After the circus theme was selected, the camp staff started looking for ways to make it happen.

Kay’s Kamp Director Dave Wessell said he met Greg Milstein, executive director of the National Circus Project, while networking at a conference of the American Camping Association.

“He seemed thrilled with our mission,” said Wessell. “It was an easy sell. He was impressed. This is the first time an outside program has led the way all week at our camp.”

Milstein and his staff treated the children to a circus performance and then let them choose what acts they wanted to perform: juggling, spinning plates, balancing feathers, working with the diabolo yo-yo, stilt walking, wire walking, trick roping or providing comic relief as a clown.

During the week, the campers practiced their acts to prepare for a show for their parents and family members on the final day of camp.

“For us it’s a privilege to be at Kay’s Kamp and do what we can to help these kids,” said Milstein. “When we work with kids, it empowers them to have success and achieve something they thought they weren’t able to do. To receive validation in front of an audience really builds self-esteem. How many times in your life do you get to perform in a circus? This is a memory that lasts a lifetime.”

A graduate of the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Clown College, Milstein has worked in circuses for more than 30 years in 25 countries including the Zippo Circus in England. He’s performed as a clown, a juggler, a unicyclist, ringmaster and tour manager.

Now as the leader of the National Circus Project, he sends teams of performers to about 500 schools and camps each year.

“We almost always have an equal mix of reactions from kids,” Milstein said. “Some say ‘Oh, I can do that. That’s easy’ and then they’re surprised because they didn’t know how hard it is. Then there are other kids who say, ‘There’s no way I can do that. Me? You want me to do that?’”

He said the circus program appeals to kids no matter their skill level.

“I think it exceeds their expectations because we always have the next challenge. Once they master a skill we are able to show them something they can move on to, so they can keep achieving,” he said.

As for working with children who’ve had cancer or are being treated for cancer, Milstein said the circus is a place where any child can excel.

“One question we’re asked so often is ‘How did you get my child or my student to do that?’ The parent or the teacher has it in their head what the child can and can’t do. My answer is, ‘Because I didn’t know that.’ We give them goals. We have expectations and they live up to our expectations,” he said.

Campers become showstoppers

Romano said the kids at Kay’s Kamp have often been told about limitations while they’re undergoing treatment – all the things they can’t do or have to be careful doing.

“A lot of time their balance may be off because of their treatments and they can’t play sports,” Romano said. “Here, they are seeing all the things they can do. They are seeing all the things they can try.”

For example, camper Grace Miller, 15, of Wilmington, plays the violin and she brought her violin to camp. When she saw the circus performers spinning plates, she decided to try spinning a plate on her bow while she played the violin.

“It was my idea. I wanted to surprise my parents,” Miller said. “When I came to camp, I didn’t know we were going to be doing a performance. I’m excited.”

Miller had neuroblastoma, a tumor in the adrenal gland or in tissue in the nervous system that is related to the adrenal gland, when she was 2 years old.

“Now I am perfectly healthy. I have been cured,” she said.

Alena Kurtz, 12, of West Grove, Pennsylvania, has been in remission for seven years. She was first diagnosed with leukemia when she was 3.

She teamed up with Caitlin Klein, 15, of Avondale, Pennsylvania, on a wire walking act for the Kay’s Kamp circus. Klein had kidney cancer, but has been in remission for nine years.

Kurtz and Klein actually knew each other before attending camp. They had competed on the same gymnastics team at a gym in Pennsylvania.

“I was really excited when I saw the tight rope. I wanted to do that,” said Kurtz. “I like to learn new skills and keep up my gymnastics skills since I’ve had a long break. I haven’t been at the gym in a while.”

When Klein found out Kay’s Kamp featured a circus theme she said she was ready to go.

“I was excited because I thought I’d be able to do cool things,” Klein said.

As for wire walking, she said, “I like balancing on the wire and doing moves. It’s kind of like gymnastics.”

Wessell said the circus has boosted the kids’ confidence by giving them an opportunity to experiment with something they’ve never done before.

“It looks amazing. I’m flabbergasted how well they’ve done,” he said. “They’re parents have been so impressed. They’ve been sharing videos of them performing already. The kids can see how much they learned in just a week.”

Connection to the first Kay’s Kamp

Justin Weber, one of the circus performers, actually has a history with Kay’s Kamp.

Before he joined the National Circus Project, he performed at the very first Kay’s Kamp 10 years ago. At the time, he was dating Karen DeMaio who went to high school with Kaylyn Warren, for whom the camp is named, so Karen asked him to help at the camp in Kaylyn’s memory. Now he and Karen are married.

Originally from Newark, Weber performs with the National Circus Project in the greater New York City area, Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The project brings its show to camps or to schools as part of a physical education program or performing arts program.

One of the managers at the circus project told him the group was going to be performing in Delaware.

“When I saw it was for Kay’s Kamp, I asked if I could have the assignment,” Weber said. “I was excited to perform here. It’s a special thing.”

Weber said his instruction with the campers went well.

“They’re into it. They’re enthusiastic,” he said.

As for working with students who have health problems, Weber said the approach is the same as at any camp or school.

“You focus on each individual. It’s different for each student, but we try to help every student make progress,” he said. “Sometimes we let those who are advancing more quickly go on their own to practice a new skill while we work with students who need more help. They don’t get bored because we can always show them new tricks to master. I think a lot of times kids are bored in school or disinterested because they lack a challenge.”

Weber said the week at Kay’s Kamp was rewarding.

“The kids are really excited about it. This is something they don’t usually get a chance to do. I always like it when I hear them say, ‘Where do I get one of these’ – the props we use. That’s good to know that they want to keep doing it.”

Hundreds of volunteers

While the theme at Kay’s Kamp was a circus, it took an army of volunteers to keep it all organized.

Including counselors, medical staff, cooks and meal servers, the camp has a staff of about 300 volunteers, said Romano, who’s normally a pediatric nurse at Christiana Hospital. Some volunteers stay the whole week day and night, some stay during the day, and some come in for a few days.

“A lot of people use part of their vacation time for this,” said Romano. “It’s a true commitment, but it’s a fun week.”

Wessell, the camp director, said three doctors and three nurses are on duty all week, plus during the day there is a nurse in each cabin.

“Our medical facility is one of the best of any oncology camp in the country,” Wessell said. “A lot of campers are in remission or have been cleared health-wise, but we have multiple campers who are on chemotherapy. One had to leave for part of a day for chemotherapy. Others are on oral chemotherapy they can take here.”

Along with the circus activities, Kay’s Kamp provides all the usual camp activities like swimming, arts and crafts, fishing and canoeing.

“What we try to provide is a normal camp for kids who might not know normal,” said Wessell. “It’s their week to come have a fun time being a kid. Some kids have a lot in common and some are very different, but they all share a common bond. Now that the circus has come to town, they can also bond over plate spinning or yo-yos. They can bond over things they need to do together to get ready for the performance.”

About Kay’s Kamp

The mission of Kay’s Kamp is to provide children ages 5 to 17 who are battling cancer and those now in remission the opportunity to participate in a unique camping experience promoting fun and normalcy – all free of charge.

Kay’s Kamp is the dream and last wish of Kaylyn Elaine Warren who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in October 2005 at the age of 17. Kay had always dreamed of opening a bed & breakfast. She was accepted at the University of Delaware's Hotel Restaurant and Hotel Management Program, but when cancer invaded her life that dream quickly changed to opening a camp for kids suffering from cancer. Kay knew firsthand how cancer had stolen the normalcy from her life. She wanted a safe place where kids battling this debilitating disease would have a place where they could take off their wigs, have fun and not be different.

In March 2007, Kay came home with hospice care and asked her family and a few friends to promise to start a camp for kids with cancer. Kay passed to eternal life on March 13, 2007 surrounded by her family.

In June of that year, Kaylyn’s parents, Laurie and Bill Warren, established The Kaylyn Elaine Warren Foundation, an official 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with one goal – Kay's Kamp.

For information on volunteering or making a donating to Kay’s Kamp, see the website or call (302) 304-2496.