A San Diego-based nonprofit that has for about a decade provided a chance at normalcy for children going through cancer is now offering support for people who have lost loved ones to the disease.
The Seany Foundation, which was started by a Carmel Valley couple in 2006 after the passing of their son Sean Robins, will host its first bereavement camp Aug. 25 to Aug. 27 in Julian.
However, the camp — called Ryan Strong, named after longtime camper Ryan Wilcox who died last year — is not meant to be a place where families dwell on their losses. Instead, it offers coping support and grievance counseling.
"This is new territory for us," said Robby Medina, the Seany Foundation's Chief Operations Officer and a bone cancer survivor. "This is the first session that's going to address the remaining family members after a kid or a parent has passed. We're not exactly sure how it's going to go, but it'll probably be pretty rough."
He said 20 families, which equate to more than 100 people, will take part in the camp.
He believes the campers will be going through a "wide range of the stages of grief" because some have been dealing with their feelings of loss for a while, and others recently lost their family members. Psychologists will also be available to offer support.
"It will de-emphasize the idea of a therapeutic weekend," Robby said, adding the camp will have activities such as wall climbing and arts and crafts. "Our camps bring people together who have a similar sort of experience but we de-emphasize cancer. We offer them opportunities to talk about it but it oftentimes is just very organic and informal."
Like all of the Seany Foundation's camps, the bereavement one will be offered free of charge for all campers and volunteers.
CEO Mitchell Robins, whose son Sean is the namesake for the foundation, started the nonprofit in 2006 with his wife Amy Robins after Sean died of Ewing Sarcoma, a bone cancer.
While going through various rounds of treatments and remissions between ages 16 and 22 before ultimately passing in November 2006, Sean missed out on some quality of life, his father said. However, in his senior year of high school at Francis Parker, Sean was able to act as Daddy Warbucks in his school’s production of “Annie,” was the homecoming king, got accepted into Northwestern University and helped his baseball team win the championship game.
Both Sean and his sister wished they had camps like these to go to, Mitchell said.
After Sean died, Mitchell — a certified public accountant who put up $1.5 million of his own money to start the Seany Foundation — wanted to do something in his son's honor. He first installed a teen center at Rady Children's Hospital. Then, after discovering the American Cancer Society (ACS) was going to close all of its camps after 32 years of operation, he knew what he had to do.
Mitchell partnered with Robby, who had led the ACS camps for 12 years, to start the Seany Foundation camps. At first, the foundation had three camps throughout the year. Now it has six, including a teen winter weekend, day camp, resident oncology camp, sibling camp, family camp and the bereavement camp.
Camps are focused on families dealing with cancer. Most programs are focused on children, including those with the disease and their siblings who often can get lost in the chaos of hospital visits and treatments.
Close to 50 percent of the volunteers are also cancer survivors, Mitchell said.
Robby, who was a camper at the ACS camps from age 14 when he was diagnosed and a volunteer once he reached 18, said offering these "quality of life" programs for the kids is important.
"It's not uncommon for these kids to lose their entire childhood when they're diagnosed,” he said. "It's a natural reaction for friends at school to abandon you, and life just changes immediately. Camp is there to replace that and build a new sense of normalcy for these kids."
Fostering a relationship with other campers in similar situations creates a strong support group and bond, said Robby, who met his wife and many of his friends while volunteering at the ACS camps.
"These kids understand that this is something they'll be dealing with for a while,” he said. “Building that community that they met at camp is huge. Only we can provide that by building this camp setting and helping them understand that it's not a death sentence or something they can't handle. We build a sense of resiliency that they can get through it with these people."
Mitchell added the camps are somewhere anxious parents can feel comfortable dropping off their children.
"The biggest pushback we get is the parents who don't want to let go of the kids," he said. "When they go and realize the camaraderie and the friendships they make, they become more comfortable."
Each year — through events like a 5K, movie nights, gala and golf tournament — the Seany Foundation raises close to $1 million to support its mission and continue to offer its programs free of charge.
For more information about the Seany Foundation and to donate, visit www.theseanyfoundation.org.