Summer camp to be “bastion of hope in the wilderness”
By David Koran
Citizen Chronicle Writer
CRYSTAL SPRINGS, MISS. — Today, Senior Master Sergeant Stacy Gilman is far away from his home, putting into practice decades worth of military training and experience.
Gilman, a Southbridge resident, is an Infrastructure Systems Superintendent with the 439th Civil Engineering Squadron at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee. And while not currently deployed in a combat zone, there is no denying he is fighting hard for something he truly believes in, alongside teams of highly capable and dedicated Airmen and civilians. He and the advanced team have been there for a few weeks now, and are ahead of schedule — working 10 hours a day, five days a week — to help create a bastion of hope in the wilderness, just west of Crystal Springs, Miss.
Ten years ago saw the start of a long and passionate project for Mary Kitchens. She envisioned a safe and welcoming place where children with disabilities, life-threatening illnesses and any special needs could enjoy the great outdoors. It would be a permanent fixture in the community, a year-round campground with complete accessibility, the support of modern on-site medical facilities, trained professionals and volunteers, and all the joyful experiences of a typical summer-camp environment, where every child can participate in every activity. The space will be called Camp Kamassa, the native Choctaw word for ‘tough.’ Today, Sergeant Gilman and other members of the Innovative Readiness Training (IRT) program are with Mary, overseeing the enormous joint civil-military efforts being employed to make that dream a reality.
“Research from the American Cancer Society shows that children who spend time in camps are happier, less depressed, and more likely to heal,” Mary Kitchens said.
Summer programs of this kind are limited in Mississippi, and have to rent space from other facilities for short periods, usually a week at a time. Camp Rainbow, which has had to move six separate times, finds it is always a hard experience on everyone. They have to schedule around other programs held at those spaces, the kids need to adjust to new surroundings, and the staff doesn’t know if they’ll have everything they’ll need, such as wheelchair accessibility, lock-ups for medication, dedicated space for dialysis, and so on. A local burn camp has had to move about as often, usually finding that the places they’ve rented don’t have any sort of infirmary. Camp Kamassa is intended to be the first year-round, fully-equipped camp facility of its kind in the state.
In 2008, Mary Kitchens and a group of longtime Camp Rainbow volunteers formed Mississippi’s Toughest Kids Foundation (MTK), with the ambitious goal of raising $25 million to build a permanent outdoor camp designed specifically for children with medical conditions or disabilities. The Kitchens family has a long history with Camp Rainbow, a summer camp for children with and survivors of pediatric cancer, ages 6-17. For five days every year, the three Kitchens brothers shut down their Mississippi-based law firm to serve as counselors at the camp, helping seriously ill children forget that they’re sick for a while and just be kids. Before he was a counselor, Dan Kitchens was also camper, diagnosed with Wilms Tumor, an often fatal form of kidney cancer. He remembers what it was like to be sick, the cruelty of other children and how it felt to be limited by an illness. He remembers going through the chemo and radiation therapies, the surgeries, and the smells which still remind him of hospital stays.
“What I remember the most about Camp Rainbow is the counselors,” Dan continues. “I had been to some other summer camps for healthy kids, but the counselors at Camp Rainbow were different. It wasn’t just a job for them. They were there because they wanted your life to be fun, at least for that one week.”
Camp Kamassa has been a labor of love, from seeking out the 326 acres of land in 2013 to paying off the loan four short years later in 2017, mostly through donations from the local community; often one acre at a time from donors affectionately dubbed “acre stakers.” Another keystone moment came when Mary and her team discovered the Innovative Readiness Training program, designed by the Department of Defense to increase military readiness through real-world training opportunities. While construction materials and basic services/facilities are provided by local participants, the labor comes from the military, increasing deployment readiness while providing lasting benefits to American communities.
For five months a summer, over the next three years, the land at Camp Kamassa will be cleared to make way for brand new buildings and activity areas. Heavy machinery will remove trees, lay new roads, spread a network of electrical lines, gas lines and plumbing. Every two weeks, new U.S. Air Force Reserve and National Guard men and women will rotate in and “beddown,” getting comfortable in the tent city set up by Technical Sergeant Monica Freeman, in charge of services support, including keeping the troops fed and putting together morale events, such as a recent 80’s night with karaoke. Other members of the duration staff that will be onsite all five months this year include Master Sergeant Christopher Fox (Project Logistics) and Major Elizabeth Emmons, Officer in Charge (OIC) who is co-commanding the project. The rest of the squadron rotates in based on expertise, with bulldozer operators being first up. A cultural area was recently identified with some arrowheads from the Choctaw tribe, and the troops were very careful and respectful of that space. Adjustments were made to the plans and layout of the road, then new permits were issued that bypassed the area, preserving it for future generations. Everyone does their part, even if they’ve finished what applies to their specialization. And in the middle of all the action is a bright pink hard hat, sitting on the head of a little girl named Aly.
Aly has been blind since birth, and her experiences with MTK have already been life-changing. She looks forward to coming to Camp Kamassa when the buildings are up and horses run in a field nearby. She has stolen the heart of Sergeant Stacy Gilman, who just brought her to her prom, and gave her a beautiful corsage with the express permission and encouragement of his loving wife, Senior Master Sergeant Dawn Gilman.
In the future, there will be cookouts and stargazing, craft projects, as well as a science room and darkroom for photography. There will be a library with books as well as games and puzzles, in case of inclement weather or for those children that can’t be out in the sun for long periods. Talent shows at Camp Kamassa will be as exciting as they will be supportive and encouraging. Ultimately, MTK plans to use the camp year-round for children and adults with special needs, anyone with serious illnesses, physical and mental challenges, as well as special needs including kids in long-term care, in the foster care program, children whose parents are deployed, and others in need of a place like Kamassa. Every camp will have their own nurses and doctors who have been working with the kids elsewhere, and they’ll be at the camp to work directly with and care for the kids, while they also get to play together and build stronger relationships as volunteers. One of Mary’s favorite photos is of a doctor who the kids sprayed with shaving cream.
Mary and the MTK team aren’t expecting miracles, but they have seen some amazing things. “So many kids come with bad attitudes, defeated,” Mary said. “Then they get to the camp and people are excited and don’t ask questions about their disabilities or scars or anything and it may not heal their bodies, but it heals their attitudes and helps carry kids over through the year.”
When she and Tanya Mohawk, the only other full-time employee alongside Mary, went to Washington to meet with the head of the IRT program, they knew the value of what they were working to build. And they had confidence others would see that too. It was a long application process, with multiple levels of review, and eventually, the project was approved and scheduled for 2019. After some changes, the date was moved up to this year and suddenly Stacy Gilman found himself right at home and making new friends in the local community. Everyone at MTK is beginning to see the tangible results of their devotion to this project.
Kamassa means tough in Choctaw; to persevere under difficulties, to not quit.
“Our kids have had many difficulties and they have pushed through,” Mary said. And for the next three summers, locals and service men and women from all branches of the U.S. Military will push through long days in NW Copiah County, Mississippi, leveling the land so that anyone with any level of mobility can access the space. This incredible cooperative effort is a great example of taxpayer dollars at work, creating something that will leave a lasting impression in the region, and building a powerful piece of a better tomorrow for all.
For more information about the Mississippi Toughest Kids Foundation, visit www.mtkfound.org.