A Vermont non-profit's summer tradition will have a whole new look and feel, because of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
Camp Ta-Kum-Ta said it was forced to transform its signature summer activities to online offerings, in order to protect medically-vulnerable children.
"Not an easy decision at all," executive director Dennis DePaul said, acknowledging how meaningful the summer camp is to families that have been affected by cancer.
Since the 1980s, Camp Ta-Kum-Ta has provided a free week of summer fun for Vermont kids with cancer, ones from nearby states receiving care in Vermont, or young locals who beat the disease.
Now, the organization also has year-round offerings.
Because so many campers have fragile immune systems, especially those on chemo, they're considered high-risk from COVID-19, DePaul noted.
The executive director added that staff and volunteers travel to the Champlain Islands from all over the country, increasing the potential for exposure to the virus.
"We will have our programs," DePaul assured families served by the organization. "They'll just look different."
Virtual dances, online storytelling, and other group activities using high-tech connections are in the works, instead of traditional summer camp activities like singalongs and ropes courses, DePaul said.
"It was like a second family for me," said Emily Gross, 32, of Bethel, who attended Camp Ta-Kum-Ta as a child and teenager after her kidney cancer.
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Gross said she can imagine the announcement was difficult to hear for families that had been looking forward to the in-person experience but told NECN and NBC10 Boston she is convinced the decision was the right move.
"It would be the last thing in my heart to have those children get real sick—even sicker than they are," Gross said.
Zack Engler, who went to camp after his childhood leukemia diagnosis, now serves on the non-profit's board.
"It's going to be different," Engler said of the way Camp Ta-Kum-Ta will look and function this summer.
However, Engler and DePaul both said the organization is really all about its people, not just about the physical spaces they may occupy.
"I think we're really fortunate, too, that there's so much technology out there," Engler told NECN and NBC10 Boston. "We're going to have fun, we're going to laugh. We're going to really enjoy each other's company, even if that's not in-person."
DePaul said this experience of moving certain activities online may actually offer a lesson in future ways to serve kids in the hospital, who can't make it to in-person programming.