Wednesday, February 29, 2012


When 11 year old Julia Gebert was just 3 months old, her mother Pamela noticed that her eyes weren’t tracking the same way that her older brother Samuel’s had when he was a baby three years earlier. She and her husband Steve took Julia to the doctor and a diagnosis was arrived at very quickly—Julia had a brain tumor. It was called an optic pathway glioma. The tumor was in a dangerous position and it still is all these years later. Three different types of chemotherapy have been used and the family now has experienced over decade worth of doctors visits. The tumor is stable thankfully but it cannot be removed and instead simply has to be perpetually watched.   
In infancy, this tumor rendered Julia almost completely blind. She can notice shadows, which does assist her a little bit when navigating a familiar room, but she has been permanently disabled by this tumor.
Julia has been attending Camp Goodtimes since she was a little girl at age 7. Sending her that first year was no easy decision for Julia’s parents. Now, four years later, she still looks forward to camp every year and she is still little. She travels a long way to get to camp, coming all the way from Alaska where 10% of the Camp Goodtimes West campers live. She makes the trip every year with her older brother Samuel. This year for the first time, her younger brother Andrew (age 7) was also able to attend. Cancer attacks entire families and siblings also benefit greatly from the camp experience. All the kids at camp gain strength through the bonds of their common experience.
Julia is a treasure. When she's at camp, in many ways she becomes our camp mascot because of her petite stature, pixie-like qualities and enormous heart. Julia just melts people with her smile. In fact, I’m surprised there’s so much ice in Alaska with Julia’s ability to melt stuff! She sees the world like few others that have ever been to camp and she is genuine to the core. She doesn’t judge people on superficial qualities. She doesn’t care what you look like, how old you are or how fashionable you are…she just cares about you. She soaks up the compassion of others and then returns it tenfold. She needs people. She needs an arm, a hand, a boost, a perch, an explanation and a shared path. And she appreciates it immensely. When she gets excited, she just bubbles over and her small body just cannot contain the energy, which causes her to start dancing in place while wearing an impossibly huge smile. If you are lucky enough to witness this in person it will make your day.
The last time I had the pleasure of seeing this was at the end of last November. Thanks to the American Cancer Society’s Anchorage office, I was offered a plane ticket to come up and be the surprise guest at the Alaska campers’ Christmas party. A one day Alaskan adventure. I had never been to Alaska before and I was thrilled by the idea. The Seattle area kids for over 20 years have had a holiday cruise donated to them by Argosy Cruises and a few years ago, feeling like they were missing out on some holiday fun, some camp counselors from Alaska, ‘Goonie’ and ‘Wiki’, started organizing a party for the local kids. Local in Alaska does mean something a bit different than in our neck of the woods. Some families even flew in from Fairbanks to attend. At the party, the kids gathered to watch a video of me sending a greeting from the staff in Seattle, at the end of which I burst through a door with camp music blaring. The kids did a huge double take and then completely freaked out. When Julia “saw” me she just started doing her dance right away and I quickly joined her and so did everyone else. After a wonderful visit with all of the kids, Julia and her family came to say goodbye. Sam came up to me and handed me a beautiful framed Native Alaskan themed drawing that he had done. 
I was so touched to be able to receive such a thoughtful gift on my first trip up north. My next gift was something entirely different. I said goodbye to Julia’s parents and then I bent down and hugged all the Gebert kids at the same time. Julia then said something while buried in the middle of that hug that made my whole epic one-day Alaskan adventure worthwhile, “I don’t wanna to let go.” She loves random classic moments (we definitely have that in common!) and when she’s having fun, she doesn’t want the fun to end. No wonder she loves camp so much.
The Gebert family.
At Camp Goodtimes, Julia has gained another family and she has no limitations. She rides the tire swing, goes swimming, rock climbing, tandem bike riding and she’s even driven a 120 foot boat. She also loves to sing and thinks nothing of sharing a song with the entire camp. A few years ago, Julia came up to me and asked to sing a song at dinner. I lifted her up so everyone could see her and she started singing “Amazing Grace”. The dining hall that was usually alive with clanking cups and rattling silverware grew instantly silent. Julia sang slowly, softly and deliberately and finished with this verse:
“I once was lost…
but now, I’m found…
I was blind…
but now I see.”

I only wish that the rest of the world could see as clearly and as beautifully as dear Julia. Bless her sweat heart.

Sidenote: Julia’s mother Pamela sent along a note of thanks for what Camp Goodtimes has meant for her children. In her note she said;
“Caring for a sick child affects the entire family and siblings are also taken for a ride on the scary roller coaster that families of children with serious illnesses experience. Camp Goodtimes teaches kids to not let their disease define them. At camp, they are not the ‘poor little sick child’. They are all too busy having a fun time and living life! These days, Julia plays the violin, tends her own vegetable garden, loves to hike and ski, and goes fishing and camping with her family. For Julia, being blind is not an insurmountable obstacle. She considers it a mere nuisance and does not let it stand in the way of having fun and trying new things. We are enormously thankful for the wonderful and loving people who care for our children while attending camp. Camp Goodtimes experiences give back lost pieces of a childhood. Camp is only one week, but the changes and confidence last a lifetime.”
-Pamela Gebert

P.S. Here's a link to a short movie trailer style video I edited while I was heading to Alaska and showed the kids at the actual party. They especially enjoyed the part where I was attacked by the bear! Mooselips' Journey to Alaska

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Finding treasures

Looking through old photographs for a friends memorial service is a solemn task but it can also be punctuated by great moments of discovery. I was digging through an old hard drive from 2004 the other day searching for any old photographs of Panda from camp that I would be able to share with her family.

I found some random photographs of her with her cabin mates waiting to go on the cruise and posing after a classic skit. Suddenly the memory of the "Fear Factor" skit came rushing back to me. Panda is pictured second from the far right (below) and she had just shoved her head into a bowl of chocolate pudding that was supposed to be some other gross thing. Thankfully I can't remember what exactly, only that the kids in the audience were howling with laughter.

That's Panda, second from the right in orange with pudding all over her face.

As I continued to look for pictures a thought came to me. I wondered if there was a chance that out of the 120 kids at camp that week if perhaps she was one of the dozen or so that signed up for a "Free Choice" photography activity that I led on the last day of camp. I found the folder and there it was...jackpot. I had completely forgotten that young pre-Panda Kathryn had been one of my portrait subjects.

I was thrilled to find these. Panda was 13 and already doing camp at full speed, making friends right and left, cracking people up and completely getting into the spirit of camp whenever and however she could. My last great find the other day was this shot of Panda and Piglet at the carnival. The colors of her hair and make-up were a fitting match for her vibrant personality.

Who knew at that time what a big part of camp she would become and how many peoples' lives she would end up touching, at camp and everywhere she went.

These photos are a treasure, and so was she.

Friday, February 3, 2012


Kathryn “Panda” Bradley passed away yesterday just three days shy of her 21st birthday. Her cancer journey started in 1999. She did not “lose the fight”, or “lose the struggle” with cancer. Rather, she won the battle of living life to the fullest. She had the secret of life down at the beginning. Cancer slowed her but never overshadowed her incredible ability to shine on, celebrate and enjoy life, and just attract friends, love and affection like a giant magnet. She created joy, happiness and laughter everywhere she went. And I’m not just saying that. I have photographic evidence. I did manage to get her to pose for a picture every now and again but usually she just exploded into laughter or silliness, and how wonderful that was to witness.

She was one of the most petite people that I have ever known and when she told me how much she loved my “short jokes” the game was on. “Oh, hey we can’t start yet because Panda’s not here.” “Anyone seen Panda?” “PANDA, hurry up and get over here!” The entire time of course Panda would be standing two inches away from me and she would instantly erupt into laughter. Or… “Hey kids you can’t go to dinner yet, your counselor’s not here…oops, didn’t see you there Panda!”

 Every smile or hug from her was a gift of the most genuine kind. The smile was from ear to ear, punctuated with a laugh that was all her own. When I hugged her she fit just perfectly under my arm. She was much shorter than my 11 year old daughter but was one of the biggest people that I will ever know. Losing her is such a profound loss for her Camp Goodtimes family because she was such an enormous part of the fabric of what makes camp so special. She just sparkled and possessed a distinctive flair that was completely wrapped around and inextractible from her deep understanding  for what Camp Goodtimes was. Nervous about going to camp when she was "little"? Not Kathryn. I remember one year when she was absolutely the last kid to arrive at camp. I think it was actually a day late. She said she didn't care at all what cabin she was in, she was just thrilled to be there.

Bumper and a little Panda in 2003
Panda was truly beautiful and as well as beautifully true. She was beautiful in the purest sense because just looking at her made you happy. She was also true, genuine and real without a shed of pretense. How could you be pretentious while dancing around in a blue dinosaur costume? That’s just impossible.

Panda’s family stood by her side from the very beginning. They showered her with love and surrounded her with hope and possibility. Panda’s brother Richard, or as his camp friends know him, Loop, wins as I told his mother yesterday “Brother of the Year” award in my book. He dropped absolutely everything in his life over these last months and never left Kathryn’s side. Recently he would sit at her bedside and read Harry Potter out loud, for hours on end. The love that these siblings had for each other was so obvious. Seeing them interact at camp was wonderful to behold and offered a small glimpse into their special and unique relationship.

Camp Goodtimes was Panda’s home away from home and the kids and staff were her extended family. Camp gave Panda the vehicle to express herself as only she could and to be universally loved. Camp does that.

My dear friend Karen Gerstenberger describes this special aspect of Camp Goodtimes beautifully and with deep personal understanding. Karen’s daughter Katie attended camp in the summer of 2007 and passed away just a few months later. The following is an excerpt from her message of sympathy to Panda’s camp family yesterday;

“The impact of Camp Goodtimes goes beyond what I understood when our children attended in the summer of 2007. It is much more than a week of fun and craziness which helps children who have cancer (and their siblings) realize what cancer cannot take from goes far beyond that. Camp creates an extended family of people who really and truly care about each camper and staff member, forever. Not just for fun, but in sickness and in health, in remission and in relapse, until death and afterward. I know this, because I have felt this love and caring directed toward our family when Katie died, and I have seen it come alongside other children and their families when they are dying. It's not just about the Goodtimes - though there are plenty of those. It's about caring for people who touch your life briefly, yet touch your heart for all time.”

Panda did just that. She touched hearts wherever she went and at camp the effect was exponential. To know her was a gift. When she was little she was actually given the Hawaiian name “Kahiwalani”, meaning “Gift from Heaven”, proof that good things come in small packages.

I wrote to Panda’s mother Carol yesterday and struggled to find the right words to express my gratitude for the pleasure of knowing her children, and finally arrived at these;
 “Thank you Carol for your three beautiful gifts to this world, Kathryn, Richard, and your recipe for life, ‘Love, Laugh & Live’. Of course dear Panda would want us to turn life up as loud as we can get it. I know for an absolute fact that her Camp Goodtimes family will. Panda is alive and well in the hearts of all of those lucky enough to stumble into her path in life and who are so much the better for it. The amount of love, laughter and living that Panda created and experienced in life is astounding. It's as if she was on a mission to live a 100 years in only 21. She clearly exceeded her goal. Kathryn will be missed dearly, remembered forever, and always will be celebrated with a smile.”