Smile-A-Mile brings sense of normalcy to young cancer patients and survivors

Smile-A-Mile brings sense of normalcy to young cancer patients and survivors
Smile-A-Mile offers a variety of camps for childhood cancer patients and their families, including camps for different age groups, on-therapy and off-therapy, as well as camps specifically for siblings and for whole families. (contributed)

Smile-A-Mile offers children with cancer and their families support and resources throughout the year.

However, the nonprofit is perhaps best known for its summer camps at Children’s Harbor on Lake Martin.

Smile-A-Mile hosts seven camp sessions each summer for children with cancer. It’s an experience many of the children could never have without Smile-A-Mile.

Each of the free camp sessions is staffed by Children’s of Alabama doctors and nurses, who care for each child’s unique medical needs.

“Many of these kids are newly diagnosed and new in their treatment and it’s their first time as a family getting out of the hospital setting and getting to experience some sense of normalcy. They get to come and have fun,” said Savannah Lanier DeRieux, Smile-A-Mile development director.

The on-therapy camp is designed for children currently being treated for cancer. Other camps include one for younger kids, a teenage camp and a junior/senior camp. There is also a young adult retreat, which used to be held on Lake Martin but is now in Birmingham.

The camps are not limited to cancer patients and survivors. The largest camp of the year is an off-therapy family camp, and there is also a session for siblings of those with cancer.

“A lot of time the other siblings can feel forgotten or left out,” DeRieux said. “We just want to make sure to give them love and support.”

Smile-A-Mile, which was founded in 1985, includes everything you think of when imagining summer camp: time on the water, arts and crafts, music, food, talent shows. But the participants probably have far more in common than in most other camps.

“All of these camp sessions are meant to be fun. These kids get to have fun, and do, but they just do it under medical supervision,” DeRieux said. “This is also a time for people to lean on each other for support because they all know exactly what each other is going through.”

Christie and Luke Allen’s son Daniel Logan was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) when he was 3 years old. The family participated in Smile-A-Mile’s hospital program during his long hospital stays. Daniel Logan relapsed at age 5 and needed a bone marrow transplant as part of his treatment. He’s now 8 years old and his mom, dad and littler brother Corbin Rich recently attended their first camp in August.

“Off-therapy camp with Smile-A-Mile was absolutely amazing,” Christie and Luke wrote in an email. “It was everything that we were told it would be and more. It was the first time I think all four of us truly felt carefree. It was just what we all needed.”

Alisha and Brian Cordell’s daughter Brianna was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) before her third birthday. They attended on-therapy camp in the past and this August attended their first off-therapy camp. Brianna is now 5, healthy and in kindergarten. Brian Cordell is an Alabama Power Hydro journeyman at Smith Dam.

“When you think about it, from the end of April to mid-August, a team (that feels more like a family) leave their own homes and travel back and forth to take care of cancer warriors and their families,” Alisha and Brian wrote in an email. “You go once and you are hooked. You are greeted with hugs and smiles and will not go hungry, either. We can’t say enough about how awesome of a weekend we had.”

Though Smile-A-Mile started as a camp, the nonprofit is much more than that today.

“A lot of people on the lake know the name Camp Smile-A-Mile, but they don’t know the full spectrum of what we do. They think of us as the camp for children with cancer on the lake, but we do much more than that,” DeRieux said.

They offer hospital and outpatient outreach to patients and their families on Children’s of Alabama’s hematology/oncology floor in Birmingham.

“There is where we are often meeting our kids and their families, often on the day of their diagnosis because we have a full-time presence at the hospital,” DeRieux said. “We try to provide home and a sense of normalcy and community during their journey. We are with these families from diagnosis, during treatment and through the years beyond.”

The nonprofit also offers many programs at Smile-A-Mile Place, which is a couple of blocks from the hospital. Other Smile-A-Mile outreach includes scholarships for cancer patients and survivors, sponsoring a fellow at Children’s and bereavement care. Smile-A-Mile also sponsors regional events across the state.

“We serve families for all over Alabama. There is no organization in Alabama doing what we do on the scale in which we do it. People come from all over to be treated at Children’s, but when they leave, they still need support,” DeRieux said. “But sometimes it’s hard for them to get back to Birmingham to participate in programs or go to camp. We have started providing programs in these different regions across Alabama.”

For more information about Smile-A-Mile programs and outreach and how you can support the work they do, visit smileamile.com.

This story originally appeared in Alabama Power’s Shorelines.

Related Stories