Thanks to the generosity and flexibility of the Cassie Hines Shoes Cancer Foundation, I was afforded the unique opportunity to participate in Project Koru’s Camp Koru in Maui, HI in April 2018. This is actually my second cancer retreat experience with Project Koru as I was a camper for its “This Is Life” program in Sausalito, CA (just north of San Francisco, CA). Furthermore, I also had the distinct privilege to attend Stupid Cancer’s CancerCon in Denver, CO just before my trip to Hawaii.
Project Koru offer both a ski and snowboarding camp as well as a surf and paddle boarding camp. Given that my location was in Hawaii, I obviously participated in the surf camp.
Camp Olowalu in Lahaina, HI was our home base for our week in Hawaii. It was a waterfront campground in which we were housed in cozy cabins for the duration of the trip. In fact, on some nights, a few camps decided to sleep under the stars next to the beach, weather permitting.
Throughout the camp, we had the opportunity to surf, paddleboard, snorkel and swim at the beach in Kihei, HI. Some of us who were more daring decided to engage in some tandem surfing (i.e. two people on one board catching a wave). We were all were instructed on the best practice on how to surf and paddleboard by the fabulous instructors at Maui Waveriders in Kihei. Also, they had three of their instructors with us in the water to help us catch waves, share insights on island life and life general, as well as keep an eye out for us.
But, our experience went beyond merely enjoying the beach. We also had the chance to volunteer a nature preserve, Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge, to be exact. The purpose of this refuge is to provide a safe natural habitat for the native plants and animals (principally birds and reptiles). We were tasked to remove the invasive pickleweed plants from a section of the habitat in order to protect the native plants. Before we went to the Wildlife Refuge, we saw the Maui Fishpond which was slowly being restored to its former glory. Keep in mind that the native Hawaiians didn’t have refrigeration so they would create these fish ponds to raise fish to as to have a stable food supply.
Our stay included a few trips to a some nearby cities on the island like Lahaina, where we all took a group photo in front Maui’s oldest living banyan tree at the Lahaina Banyan Court. In addition, we also made a quick trip to the quaint town of Paia, HI which includes the Maui Dharma Center. One day, we enjoyed a picnic lunch at Baldwin Beach Park. Baby Beach provided some of the most calm, shallow waters while offering the best opportunity to get up and personal with some sea turtles (be careful not to touch them! If you get caught, it’s a $500 fine!). I can’t forget the awe inspiring Lava Fields at La Perouse Bay.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention, Ahi (his camp power name), the camp chef. He was quite masterful in providing delicious, satisfying as well as nutritious meals (which artfully featuring the local fruits, produce and seafood into his cuisine) for us three times a day, every day of the trip.
Though not an official part of the trip, but highly recommended by the camp counselors, going to Leoda’s Kitchen and Pie Shop which was a merely 11 minute walk from the campground. The chocolate macadamia and the banana cream pies were the undisputed favorites!
The essential part of experiences like this is to surround yourself with others who understand and can empathize with your struggle and be a source of mutual support. In your hometown, your doctor’s office, clinic, etc., it’s hard for us to remove the tough exterior that we must develop in order to braving face the challenges of life with cancer. However, a cancer camp experience is about stripping away that tough mask and becoming vulnerable with others and learning to grow.
I had several favorite parts of my Camp Koru experience:
Picking our camp “power names.” I’m William, but most call Will. Yet those closest to me refer to me as “Thrill.” However, the rule about picking power names it couldn’t be anything that you have been called before. I gave some of the campers at the airport the choice between three names. The first two were Marvel-inspired, “Black Panther” and “T’Challa.” Those options were panned. And they selected the third which was inspired by the Adult Swim cartoon, Rick & Morty, “Pickle Rick!” So, my Camp Koru power name was Pickle Rick which always lead to chuckle within the group. Others just called me Pickle for short.
We had a nightly tradition of awarding the Koru Spirit Chain to a camper who showed true grit and determination throughout the day. This award is granted by the previous spirit chain recipient. Cyan (her camp power) was talking about how this person deserved the spirit award for their character and personality and whatnot. I, for my part, wasn’t really paying attention because I had reasoned that the person described had no chance to be me. So, I was quite surprised and humbled when I finally turned around and Cyan was standing right in front of me with the spirit chain.
On Friday evening, our last night on the island, we had our Project Koru ceremony in which we all were accepted into the Project Koru O’hana (family) and were given symbols of our transformation of the experience with a specialized necklace with a carved charmed of the Project Koru symbol.
After our camp officially ended on Saturday morning, I kinda fell into the Morgan Freeman role in Driving Miss Daisy by offering rides to my fellow campers whose rental cars reservations had fallen through. That lead to a day of driving across to the island to Lahaina for brunch, a stop by a ukulele store, a tattoo parlor, a roadside stop for Hawaiian Huli Huli Chicken and Pork, a Hawaiian organic farm and distillery, and what trip to Hawaii would be complete without a mandatory Costco run for Hawaiian snacks and candy for the long plane ride home!
My advice to anyone that is either reluctant or nervous about this camp is to embrace the fear! There are a lot of unknowns: who you will be in camp with, who your counselors will be, the weather, the activities, etc. However, understand your fear, but don’t let it hold you back! It’s okay to be reluctant or nervous, yet it is almost unforgivable for you to allow that to dictate your actions. Naturally, we were all afraid when we were diagnosed with cancer. We were fearful….nonetheless, we didn’t allow that fear to weaken our resolve to fight, live and thrive. So, if we are baller enough to look cancer in eyes and laugh, how much more readily can we actively face and overcome our fears in other parts of our life. Don’t let your fear nor cancer deprive you of a rare, unique opportunity to better yourself and grow!