by Julie Lane October 17th 2014
He turned 8 in September — but Jesse Pallas has already endured more trauma than most people experience in a lifetime. The Miller Place youngster is fighting a second battle with leukemia, including another round of chemotherapy.
In recent weeks, he’s been back and forth to the clinic to deal with issues affecting the port that enables him to get chemotherapy.
Thanks to KiDS NEED M♥RE, he was able to enjoy a birthday party at the end of September that included a visit from two firefighters from the upstate Walker Valley Fire District. They honored Jesse by making him a firefighter for the day.
KiDS NEED M♥RE also hosts CampAdventure every summer at Camp Quinipet for children with cancer and their siblings.
Jesse’s appearance at Camp Adventure last summer was a gift from Jeanne and Ken Woods, an Island family who opened their home and their hearts to this brave young child and his mother, Fariba, because he was deemed too ill to stay at Quinipet overnight.
This was the fifth summer the Woods have been involved with Camp Adventure. In the past, they housed doctors, nurses and other staffers. There are 130 staffers, including medical personnel, counselors, kitchen workers and others who volunteer their time to help provide for the 143 campers.
The Woods first heard about Camp Adventure from an Our Lady of the Isle Church bulletin and decided they wanted to be a part of the program.
Not only does this couple get into the act, but their Labradoodle, Lulu, also became a caregiver.
There was a point at which Jesse was in pain and crying and the dog quietly crawled up on the couch where the boy was seated and began licking his hands. Jesse’s mother “was so delighted” to see how the dog’s behavior helped comfort her son.
“This child is so unique,” Ms. Woods said. The Woods and Pallas families have established a solid bond that will continue.
Melissa Firmes is a co-founder of M♥RE (Motivational Recovery Environments), the group that runs the Camp Adventure program. The Woods’ willingness to house Jesse and his mother “was the greatest thing,” Ms. Firmes said.
One sign of Shelter Island’s support of Camp Adventure is that it has returned to Quinipet every year since 2000.
Many community members and organizations pitched in to keep the camp alive. Islanders baked goodies for the campers’ prom. Members of the Fire Department hosed the kids down after their shaving cream fight, then returned that night to provide a barbecue for the campers and staff.
Other Islanders housed staff and made contributions to the organization to keep the adventure afloat.
Ms. Firmes is particularly grateful to Camp Quinipet, which annually welcomes the campers and staff and “provides enormous support to making the week-long program so successful.”
At the same time, Ms. Firmes said the past year has been a learning experience since the American Cancer Society, which had provided financial and administrative support, cut Camp Adventure because of budget constraints.
Ms. Firmes and co-founder David Lewis, who have more than 20 years of experience working with children and families, refused to let the program die, she said. Ms. Firmes is licensed as a social worker specializing in assisting those with trauma, grief and mental health concerns; Mr. Lewis is a police officer and volunteer EMT and fireman.
The pair rallied a core group of about 45 people who shared their commitment. That has snowballed into a large number of volunteers, many of whom are survivors of cancer or other life-threatening illnesses. This past summer, 80 staffers were former campers.
The co-founders and supporters of M♥RE have learned the hard way about the ins and outs of both fundraising and administration. A year ago, Ms. Firmes estimated the cost for each camper at $2,000. She knows now that number is $2,500.
“We’ve learned a lot and had to do a lot of things, but we’re really a strong organization,” she said.
There have been donors willing to sponsor campers and foundations stepping up to provide major grants or organizing fundraisers.
Among them has been the Paul Robert Carey Foundation, established to honor the son of former New York Governor Hugh Carey. The seventh son of the former governor succumbed to pheochromocytoma, a rare endocrine cancer, when he was 38.
The foundation is dedicated to providing quality-of-life funding for cancer patients and others facing physical, mental or emotional challenges. The foundation recently held a golf outing to benefit M♥RE.
Just a month before camp started, Ms. Firmes said she was $30,000 short of the money needed. She found some places where she could make budget cuts and then last minute contributions put the program into the black.
“It’s penny by penny,” but the program is here to stay. “Everything is coming together,” she said.
As for Jeanne and Ken Woods, “We get way more out of this than we ever give,” Ms. Woods said. “It’s a privilege.”
You can follow Jesse’s progress on his Facebook page at Hope for Jesse.