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Other than having a left foot two shoe sizes smaller than her right, Makenna Nelson is nearly five years removed from her battle with a rare form of cancer.

Nelson, a fourth-grader who attends Newman Elementary School, decorates both her feet — she calls her left foot “my little foot” — with colorful nail polish. While she’s at it, she paints the toenails of her mother, Natasha.

Makenna’s little foot gave her seemingly no end of trouble in the years before she started school. Eventually she was diagnosed with synovial sarcoma, a form of cancer that affects fewer than three in 1 million people each year.

Several surgeries later, she’s cancer free and eagerly awaiting an event she’s enjoyed the past three summers: Kids Camp, a cost-free program at Camp Mak-A-Dream in Gold Creek, about an hour east of Missoula. She’ll attend July 31 through Aug. 5.

The camp is on 87 acres and is set against the Flint Range of the Rocky Mountains. Every activity and facility at the camp is accessible for people with handicaps and designed for children who have been diagnosed with cancer.

It’s the chance, said Camp Mak-A-Dream’s executive director, Laura Bionco Hanna, for children “to be around others who understand what it is like to spend so much time in the doctor’s office or what it’s like to get strange looks when you lose your hair or lose a limb. You don’t have to explain any of that, because they all get it.”

Last summer, Camp Mak-A-Dream’s variety of camp offerings served 447 campers from 41 states and Canada at no charge to the campers and their families except for travel expenses. The camp also awarded $41,000 in travel scholarships for first-time attendees.

Camping opportunities also are offered for the siblings of children diagnosed with cancer, young adults with brain tumors, teenagers diagnosed with cancer and women who’ve been diagnosed with any type of cancer.

Seated next to her mother in her family’s living room, Makenna said she especially looks forward to two very active activities during her camp experience — riding horses and zipping above the scenic terrain on a zip line.

“That’s what it’s all about — being a kid and having fun,” Hanna said. Campers “love the connections they make here. Whether they’re 6 or 16 or 66, everyone at camp understands your situation. You don’t have to explain your anger, guilt or frustration. Those aren’t empty platitudes, because they get it. They all understand what you’re going through.”

Makenna said she also loves the camp’s less active offerings, including the tradition of campers rolling out of bed in the morning and, right away, joining friends to make up and perform a skit before they sit down for breakfast.

While they’re at camp, the children also make their way through arts and crafts stations, hike and fish, she said.

Makenna “has some anxiety” in the days leading up to camp, Natasha Nelson explained, “but then we get there, and she’s back with her friends. She is so outgoing at camp. She’s free, wild and happy.”

While campers are discouraged from calling home while they’re at Camp Mak-A-Dream, Natasha and her husband, Darren, receive a nightly email from camp staff updating parents on the campers’ goings-on. Natasha said she is also able to surreptitiously enjoy her daughter’s daily activities via social media.

“It’s a way for campers to get away and meet others like them so they know they’re not the only ones,” Natasha said. “It is amazing what they do for these kids. They’re constantly busy.”



City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.