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Manatee camp hosts eight children with cancer from Tampa

MANATEE -- The eight kids sitting around a cracking campfire at Dream Oaks Camp Saturday night in East Manatee were all shouting as loud as they could:

"The Milk Song! The Milk Song! The Milk Song!"

Mariah Pasko, 20, program director for The Foundation for Dreams' Dream Oaks Camp, finally relented. Actually, she didn't need that much coaxing.

"Don't give me no pop," she sang out.

"No pop," the kids yelled back.

"Don't give me no tea," she belted out.

"No tea," came the wailing refrain.

"Just give me that milk, moo moo moo moo," she crooned,

"That chocolate milk," the kids belted. "Moo moo moo moo."

It doesn't matter if the verses are being sung by a kid recently diagnosed with cancer or not, "The Milk Song" always sounds the same when kids sing it, Pasko said.

A blast of a weekend

Saturday night's campfire and sing-along was just one highlight of the past weekend's visit of The Children's Cancer Center of Tampa Bay to Dream Oaks Camp at the Boy Scout's Camp Flying Eagle on Upper Manatee River Road.

The trip was arranged so that eight children who are receiving treatment for cancer and their families could have a weekend away from clinical appointments, said Sharin Nelson, support coordinator for The Children's Cancer Center in Tampa.

Besides songs by a campfire at night, the children, who came Friday after school and went home Sunday, got to ride in golf carts, go horseback riding, make s'mores, have a pizza party and go canoeing. Activities included scavenger hunts, a drum circle, nature studies, music, dancing, arts and crafts, sports, games, and the celebration of the sixth birthday of Alex Hutton, a girl from Lakeland with cancer.

Alex's twin sister, Aryka, who does not have cancer, also turned 6 at camp.

"We came for the weekend to get away, to be in nature, to do new things with other families experiencing similar things, and, mostly, just to have fun," Nelson said on Sunday when she had to bid farewell to the families from all over the Tampa Bay area, including Lakeland, New Port Richey, Brooksville and other locales.

The Children's Cancer Center serves any family that has a child being treated for cancer in the Tampa Bay area, Nelson said.

This was the sixth year that the cancer center has brought Tampa area kids with cancer to Manatee County.

"There are a lot of different camps out there but we feel the most comfortable and safe place for our families is here," Nelson said.

The center keeps coming back to Upper Manatee River Road because of the Dream Oaks staff, the amenities at the camp, the environment and a family feeling, Nelson said.

"It is very easy for us," Nelson said. "The staff are fun, energetic and take care of everything. All the kids learn Mariah and Donna's names and ask for them." Nelson was referring to Donna Pasko, Mariah's mother, who is director of camp operations at Foundation for Dreams.

Donna Pasko was emotional when the last child left Sunday.

"It's a true blessing to have them come down and step away from their real world, which is very busy and medically oriented and serious stuff and to just go into our setting and play and laugh and have fun," Donna Pasko said.

Families grateful for fun time

For Trevor and Nina Hutton of Lakeland and Andrew and Sera Lucas of New Port Richey, whose young children have cancer, this weekend was a blessing, they said.

"I think their favorite thing was riding on the golf carts," said Nina Hutton.

"No mommy, it's swinging on the swings," said Amaya, whose younger sister, Alex, has leukemia.

Alex was diagnosed with leukemia in 2014, and on May 9 of this year the family gets to "ring the bell," which means ends of treatment, Nina Hutton said.

The Children's Cancer Center invited the Huttons to Manatee and they accepted, after not feeling ready to go to other events.

"We heard about the Children's Cancer Center when we were in the hospital shortly after we were diagnosed," Hutton said. "It took us six months before we ever went there. At the beginning, there is a lot of stress and you don't know if you want to talk about it yet. But it has been amazing for our family and especially for our other kids to help them deal with their sister having cancer."

Isaiah Lucas is 5 years old and he has been dealing with a type of childhood cancer called stage four neuroblastoma since he was 2, said Sera Lucas.

Neuroblastoma is a cancer of the sympathetic nervous system, Andrew Lucas said.

"It started out as a stomach ache," Sera Lucas said of her son's initial symptoms. "They were treating him for constipation. They did blood work and found out he was anemic. So they sent us to a hematologist."

Further tests on Feb. 27, 2014, revealed that Isaiah had tumors in his abdomen and he had cancer on his skull, collarbone, hip and leg. After chemotherapy, a stem cell transplant, more than 10 hours of surgery in New York and antibody treatment, he is now in remission, his family said.

Isaiah is now in a 27-month clinical trial of a new drug designed for children who are in remission with neuroblastoma, his parents said.

"He takes three pills morning and night, and we go to Orlando once a month to get labs, and he gets scans to make sure he is still in remission," Sera Lucas said.

So, what was Isaiah's reaction to the camp?

"Oh my goodness," his mother said. "He has never been to a camp like this, so when we were explaining it to him he was very, very excited. And now he doesn't want to leave."

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter@RichardDymond.

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