- Associated Press - Saturday, June 25, 2016

OZARK, Ala. (AP) - Ozark KOA owner Lori Hemmis wonders what it must have been like to have attended a camp with kids who faced some of the same challenges as she had when she was diagnosed with a childhood cancer.

While she didn’t attend any of the camps, she said she has thought enough about them - and the support they offer families - to contribute annually to the Birmingham-based Camp Smile-A-Mile. Hemmis presented the camp’s executive director, Bruce Hooper, with a $20,000 check on Tuesday to go toward the camp’s programs.

Hemmis said more than $1,000 of the funds were raised locally at the KOA through a garden planted on the Ozark campground and from donations from campsite residents and visitors. The remainder of the monies came from some of the more than $1.5 million KOAs across the country raised in the fundraising year for the camps.

According to KOA’s Care Camps website, campground owners have raised more than $9.6 million through activities and donations on the campgrounds since the KOA Care Camps Trust was established in 1984.

Hemmis said she was diagnosed with stage 4 Hodgkin lymphoma at the age of 15 and was diagnosed with breast cancer seven years ago. A survivor of both diagnoses, Hemmis said she is thankful for the opportunity to give back.

“It means everything to my heart. When I had cancer I would have loved as a child to have gone to a camp where I didn’t feel different, where everybody’s the same.”

According to Camp Smile-A-Mile, summer camp sessions are provided to more than 450 pediatric oncology patients, survivors, and their siblings and parents both at Lake Martin and through a camp program on the Hematology/Oncology Floor at Children’s of Alabama. In addition, more than 25 scholarships are provided to campers planning to attend college.

Year-round programs are also available.

Hooper said the Ozark KOA’s contribution could help support as many as 40 kids’ camp sessions. He said families are never charged for their children to attend the camps.

“For the families, this is a club that they never want to be a part of, but once you do have a child that is diagnosed, we want to jump in the gap and make sure that they know we’ll be there for them and provide opportunities for them to fellowship with other families,” he said.

“KOA has been an incredible partner that has increased their support to a big number for us and other camps within Children’s Oncology Camping Association. It’s just amazing when people help us provide a place to see kids blossom and let their guard down and quickly realize that there are kids just like them, and that they’re going to be accepted completely for who they are on the inside and not on the outside.”

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Information from: The Dothan Eagle, https://www.dothaneagle.com

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