Two summers ago, I signed up to be a camp counselor at Camp Dragonfly, a four day long summer camp for kids whose lives have been affected by childhood cancer. I had never done anything similar in my 18 years and I was nervous about what to expect. I was expecting to be surrounded by sad, sickly looking children, but nothing could have been farther from the truth. That year I was privileged enough to meet a very special little girl named Shayla, or “Squiggles” (her camp name). She loved to dance and wasn’t shy about showing off her moves in the least. I remember her bright green sunglasses, her green polka-dot sunhat, and especially the smile that never left her face. Even though she was in the throws of fighting the hardest battle of her life, the late stages of cancer, this little seven-year old never let it show.
The night of the campfire, the campers were all given glow stick necklaces. Afterward, back in the cabin, one of the other counselors cut them open and spun them around, sprinkling the iridescent liquid all over the room. The next morning one of her counselors shared with us something Shayla had said to her. “I’m not scared anymore,” she declared while gazing around the speckled room, “because this must be what the stars look like from heaven.”
My perspective on life was changed so dramatically that summer, not only by Kayla, but by the rest of the campers as well. It amazed me how strong and brave these kids could be when illness and death were all around them. They would tell me stories of friends of theirs that had passed, yet all the while smiling at their memory. These children, some as young as six years old, celebrated life more fully than any other group of people I had ever seen. They understood that each and every minute on this Earth was a gift: a gift that shouldn’t be wasted by self-pity, despair, anger or fear. They understood the importance of a smile, the strength behind a hug, and the true meaning of “a helping hand.” Even though most of them had plenty to fear, they refused to let that fear take control. Instead, they tried to fill their lives to the brim with meaning and beauty, that way, there was no room for fear.
I still remember when I caught word that Shayla had passed. I began crying until I remembered the lessons I had learned that summer, and that I should be celebrating for having had the opportunity to know her instead of mourning her death. It was this moment that my belief, to never let the negativity of life get you down or stop you from living your life to its full potential, was fully realized.