Gina Caro, 12, drapes a protective arm around her 9-year-old brother, Joshua, as they sit on a curb waiting for a bus to take him to camp. This is Joshua’s first time going away to camp, and he’s a little nervous.
When asked if he’s excited, Joshua shyly replies, “I don’t know.”
But Camp Grey Dove is geared specifically toward children like him.
“I have cancer,” his sister says. “Leukemia.”
Roughly 50 kids who have siblings with cancer are attending the free weeklong camp in Killeen. Grey Dove is run by Any Baby Can, a nonprofit that focuses on issues related to childhood development.
Joshua and Gina's mom, Brenda Bazaldua, says Gina’s cancer is in remission right now, but their family has gone through some really tough times. She says watching Gina suffer has been hard on everyone, but especially the kids.
“Not only for Gina [who] was the one suffering," she says, "but for Joshua to see that suffering and not being able to do anything about it."
Bazaldua says some days it was clearer than others that Joshua was having a hard time understanding what was happening to Gina.
“Joshua, some days he would just space out completely – 'I don’t understand what is going on, and I hate this,'” she says.
Bazaldua says she’s excited Joshua will get to meet other kids who have siblings with cancer and that it could help him.
Ethan Jones, one of the counselors, has been going to Camp Grey Dove for years. The first time was when he was 7 years old; his twin brother had leukemia.
Jones says the camp was really helpful during that part of his life.
“It was cool knowing that there are other kids like me,” he says. “Really, I mean other kids who went through some of the same stuff. … It was really easier to bond with them, because we could talk about it.”
Jones says that wasn’t the case in other parts of his life, like school.
“A lot of people don’t really share the same experience with cancer and having it with a sibling – somebody so close,” Jones says. “This camp is really just a great place for me to meet other people and create bonds with people.”
This camp is also a way for the kids to get a lot of undivided attention, something Jones says was hard to come by when his twin brother was sick. He says he and his older brothers and sisters were "kind of pushed off."
“It makes sense because he needed it," Jones says. "But, while we are here, I try to give [the campers] that attention. That’s why I try to interact with every camper I can.”
The kids get professional attention, too. Group therapy is a big part of the daily activities.
“All of the kids are divided based on their age or whether their sibling is on or off treatment or bereaved,” says Allison Bautista, program coordinator for Any Baby Can. “So, they're in groups with their peers, and they can work through kind of processing their feelings and their experiences.”
In the end, though, this is still a summer camp. Bautista says the bulk of the time will be spent having fun.
“We have things like scuba diving, ropes courses, zip lines,” she says. “There’s a petting zoo with a llama and miniature horses. It’s a ton of stuff. They even have a giant slip-and-slide.”
Jones says making sure the campers have a good time is his No. 1 priority.
“What I try to hammer into the kids is that – just have fun this week, because I know it’s tough,” he says. “I always say this camp is a great break from reality. So, you can have that time just to be a kid.”