Perhaps Dr. Bob Bergamini summed it up best:
“The unique and spectacular gift that they have given is a vision, an insight and a motivation that makes these camps endure and continue to improve, and sparks that creativity that allows us to continue activities even during COVID.”
Bergamini, a pediatric oncologist, is talking about Allen and Ronnie Brockman, who in 1988 founded Camp Rainbow for children in the St. Louis area diagnosed with cancer and other blood-related disorders.
That first weeklong overnight summer camp hosted 28 children. Today, Camp Rainbow’s seven camp programs serve more than 800 children a year. The camps are free. They are funded by donations and grants and are staffed predominantly by 450 volunteers.
“In the 33 years we’ve been running camp, we’ve served more than 8,500 children with cancer and blood disorders,” Ronnie said with a tinge of pride.
Allen explains that he and Ronnie each grew up with parents who encouraged them to get involved in social action projects “and to keep an eye out in the community for wants and needs.”
In 1986, Allen, a furniture sales and marketing rep, became active with the Dream Factory, a nonprofit, all-volunteer organization whose mission was fulfilling dreams of seriously and chronically ill children. He volunteered with Dream Factory for 25 years and served as its board chairman for three.
He would regularly visit the children in area hospitals, sometimes dressing up as a cartoon character or animal to give them a laugh.
“One day, I was talking to some of the kids,” Allen said. “It was spring. I asked them if any of them were going to camp, and no one was going. So I said to Ronnie, ‘There are wants and needs for these children. We need to start a camp specifically for children with cancer and blood-related disorders.’ ”
And that’s exactly what the couple did.
The first overnight camp was held at the Lion’s Den Outdoor Learning Center in Jefferson County, which was owned by the Lions Club. A few years later, it moved to Jacob Babler Outdoor Education Center at Babler State Park in Wildwood, where it continues today.
Over the years, as part of the nonprofit Camp Rainbow Foundation, the overnight camp grew — no, make that exploded — as new camps were added to accommodate the needs and wants of campers and their families. Today, in addition to the overnight camp for children 6-14, there is Teen Camp; Day Camp; Family Camp; TNT, for campers 14 to 20, which provides social activities throughout the year; and Sibs Camp.
Camp-In, still another program, brings camplike activities to St. Louis Children’s Hospital, Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital and Mercy Hospital St. Louis for children who are too sick to attend sleepaway or day camp.
Zack Fernau, 28, who was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease when he was 2, remembers attending Camp Rainbow for the first time at age 6.
“It was just awesome,” he said. “I had scars on my chest because of the ports. I was used to going to public water parks where everyone stared at you.
“When I went to Camp Rainbow and kids saw my scars, no one batted an eye. Everyone accepted one another, and I think that’s the goal of Camp Rainbow. It gives kids who don’t get the chance to experience a normal childhood the chance to feel accepted and ‘normal.’ You get to go there and just be a kid. It’s magical.”
Fernau has continued to stay involved with Camp Rainbow and is program director for the summer overnight camp. He says some of his closest friends are fellow campers whose weddings he has attended.
“As Allen Brockman says: ‘We come as individuals and we leave as a family,’ ” Fernau said.
Heather Bachman, a breast cancer survivor who was diagnosed at age 39, has heard Allen say that many times. As executive director of Camp Rainbow, she has seen the Brockmans cope with the highs and lows of children with cancer and the reality that not all of them make it to adulthood.
“Allen and Ronnie know the families and know the children,” Bachman said. “Even to this day, they send a note of condolence to every single family themselves, outside of what Camp Rainbow does officially. They go to the funeral or wake or service or whatever the family’s wishes are for every camper, even today. Allen’s saying that ‘You come as individuals and you leave as a family’ is something they really take to heart.”
Like Fernau, a large number of former campers come back to volunteer as counselors and staff members year after year. A few survivors have even returned to serve as camp doctors and nurses.
Bachman said: “You are talking about people who are willing to take off work, sometimes travel long distances to get here and roll up their sleeves to help. These are long hours, it’s really hot and a lot of the work is not fun. Yet these people come back year after year because Ronnie and Allen created this community that is really special and really important to so many people.”
The communities they have built extend beyond Camp Rainbow. Allen was a founding board member and president of Friends of Kids with Cancer, which provides educational and recreational programs for children with cancer. Its executive director, Brandy Bimslager, says of him: “You can tell how passionate he is about these kids just by meeting him. He’s always been a strong voice and advocate for the kids and what they need to get through this devastating journey.”
Ronnie, who had a long career working at Congregation Shaare Emeth, also served as director of youth activities for the Midwest Council Region of the Union of Reform Judaism; as NFTY director for the Missouri Valley Federation of Temple Youth; and on the boards of the Brodsky Library Commission, Jewish Fund for Human Needs and KidSmart.
This past summer, when it was clear that in-person camps could not be held because of the pandemic, Camp Rainbow went virtual. About 250 campers received a box filled with all kinds of activities, then joined daily Zoom calls to participate in those activities with volunteer counselors and staff.
“One of those activities was a dance party,” said Penny Cutrell, board president of Camp Rainbow Foundation. “On the Zoom, we see the Brockmans dancing at their house, having fun and smiling.”
She said that although the Brockmans are in their 70s and retired, they still exude unbridled enthusiasm and joy for anything to do with Camp Rainbow.
Added Dr. Bergamini: “Camp Rainbow becomes the focus of a wonderful experience that these kids will relive in their minds when they are having a bad day. It creates a positive memory during a tumultuous time in a child’s life.”