MAKING A DIFFERENCE
By Darlene Donloe
When a parent hears that their child has cancer, it makes for an incredibly stressful time as they navigate their way through doctor appointments and treatments while trying to maintain as normal a life for their child as possible.
Camp Ronald McDonald for Good Times understands what the family is going through. It’s an organization with a goal to put a smile on the face of a child diagnosed with cancer and their family.
The camp was launched to create a positive long-lasting impact on children with cancer by providing fun-filled, medically supervised, cost-free, year-round residential camp programs.
Fatima Djelmane Rodriguez has been the executive director of the organization for four years.
“I have a passion for working with youth,” said Rodriguez, who has been with the organization for almost nine years. “That’s the through line of my career. There has always been a youth development component.”
When she took the role, Rodriguez had goals in mind for the organization.
“I wanted to do a program assessment,” she said. “I wanted to do a community needs assessment. I want to find out where our families need more support. We need to find out. When I took the role, I also wanted to raise our profile.”
Rodriguez did just that. With the help of her colleagues, she raised the profile of the organization, which is part of Ronald McDonald House Charities of Southern California, with a successful awareness campaign.
“There were two years of promoting childhood cancer awareness,” she said. “Each year we reached more people with the campaign. The first year we reached three million. The next year we reached 15 million. We keep upping the ante because this work is important.”
Rodriguez believes her job is to be the ultimate ambassador and steward of the organization.
“One of our board members called me a Zen bulldog,” she said. “I’m a staunch advocate for kids. I’m calm in a crisis. I’m kind and compassionate, but I’m persistent when something is important. That’s my job.”
Rodriguez said her job is all about the kids.
“My impact was ushering camp into this new era — making us current and well known to not only garner more support but most importantly, to be able to serve more children and families impacted by childhood cancer,” she said. “Ultimately, I want to ensure that my contributions impact the long-term success of camp.”
Rodriguez said the organization prides itself in being able to “heal what traditional medical treatments can’t heal.”
“The cancer is in the body of one child, but it impacts the whole family,” she said. “We are unique. Other programs focus on patients. Ours is for the whole family. We don’t even differentiate. We say everybody has cancer. There is no distinction.”
Since 1982, Camp Ronald McDonald for Good Times® has helped thousands of children and their family members recapture hope, enthusiasm, and love of life in a medically and psychologically safe environment created especially for them.
The camp, which has a Spanish language family camp program, is considered part of a child’s treatment.
“It’s part of the treatment for kids to recoup from a traumatic experience,” said Djelmane Rodriguez, a married mother of two. “The kids and their families think of the camp as a fun thing. It’s like they’re getting a new lease on life.”
Djelmane Rodriguez, 42, describes the camp, nestled in the San Jacinto mountains of Southern California, a few miles from the town of Idyllwild, as “60 acres of freedom.”
The facilities, Apple Canyon Center, are designed specifically for the campers; enabling guests to enjoy the magic and beauty of a wooded hideaway while being only minutes away from comprehensive medical facilities and services. The campsite provides mountain views, open meadows, and has 100-year old pine trees.
There are about 11 camps throughout the year. A child and their family are allowed to stay six days and five nights each year.
There is Family Camp, open to all first-time families attending Camp Ronald McDonald For Good Times® regardless of the age of the camper. There are five weekend Family Camp sessions from which to choose – three in the spring and two in the Fall.
Summer Camp is open to all patients and siblings who are at least nine-years-old. There are five summer camps from which to choose.
At the camp, attendees can enjoy a 50 ft. climbing tower, horseback riding, a basketball court, archery range, fishing pond, volleyball court, two group campfire areas, arts and crafts, hiking trails, costume room, soccer, softball, kids cooking class, challenge/rope course, a heated swimming pool, and more.
Camp participants are recruited at hospitals by oncologists and nurses.
“A family will feel more comfortable if the medical team is suggesting the camp,” said Djelmane Rodriguez, who attended USC for undergrad and the University of Texas at Austin for graduate school. “We have some who come from Ronald McDonald houses too. Basically, as long as a child has or had cancer, they and their siblings qualify to come as long as they obtain medical clearance from their doctor.”
Camp facilitators want the children to be independent.
“We want them to be confident, strong, compassionate leaders,” said Djelmane Rodriguez. “We want the kids to go beyond what they think is possible for themselves.”
Like most organizations, Camp Ronald McDonald For Good Times had to pivot during the pandemic, but never lost its focus.
After winter camp for teen campers in early 2020, in-person experiences were shut down. Rodriguez is not sure when in-person camping will resume.
“Due to the pandemic, everything is in flux,” she said. “Last summer we pivoted to doing camp at home. Families can do a version of camp at home. We used videos our camp counselors created.
“There was storytelling, songs, arts and crafts. We did camp in a box. We provided all the supplies campers would need while on Zoom with the counselors. We served 1,000 campers in 2020 with a virtual program.”
Seeing smiles on the faces of the children at the camp is “joyful” for Rodriguez.
“I feel admiration for families and campers,” she said. “I feel joy. Being at the camp gives me a chance to be silly. About 95% of the camp is joyful. Whatever the serious hardships they experience at home, they leave it at home. The energy is joyful.
“I got close to one of the kids who unfortunately passed away. It was hard. The kid was an earth angel. I’m a spiritual person. When I deal with hard things, I ask her to help me out. She’s my patron saint.”
On Nov. 14, Camp Ronald McDonald For Good Times will hold an in-person 2021 Hero’s For Healing Gala.
A common misconception about Camp Ronald McDonald For Good Times is that they are fully funded by McDonald’s.
“We are constantly fundraising,” said Rodriguez, who was born in San Francisco and raised in the San Gabriel Valley. “We want to keep camps free. We have a commitment to remain cost-free for our families. McDonald’s support is about 10%.”
“Making a Difference” is a weekly feature profiling organizations that are serving their communities. To propose a “Making a Difference” profile, send an email to email@example.com.
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.