Happy Days director sees kids' side
Amy Ethridge looks fit and healthy. The pictures along the bubbly 44-year-old's wall in the Camp Happy Days' Ashley Hall Road building give off the same youthful vibe. Smiling children splash in rainstorm puddles, jump into a lake, play dress-up with fancy gowns and makeup.
But look closer and you might notice something about the children -- while they are smiling, some are not as healthy as they might seem. There is the occasional boy or girl who has lost his hair -- an effect of chemotherapy.
Camp Happy Days is a nonprofit organization that provides programs throughout the year for children with cancer. Its signature event is a weeklong summer camp at Camp Bob Cooper in Summerton for children with cancer ages 4-16 and their brothers and sisters.
Ethridge's family has no history of cancer, but her vibrant personality perhaps helps the children to feel motivated and encouraged to succeed.
Before becoming the executive director two years ago, Ethridge spent 16 years as a counselor at the camp. Ethridge even got her sister, Julie Shaughnessy, involved when Julie graduated from college after she heard Ethridge speak so highly about the camp.
"She is one of the kindest people I know. She has a big heart for others and this job suits her perfectly," says Shaughnessy.
'A passion begins'
Ethridge's involvement started like many: She knew someone with cancer. While she was working at a credit union, her friend from college, Allan Cabading, approached her about volunteering for Camp Happy Days. Cabading battled cancer while they were in college together, so he was away from school for long periods of time. After college, Cabading and Ethridge became close friends.
"For two years he asked, but I thought I would be sad all week. I wouldn't belong there because I would be way too emotional. I wouldn't be able to hold myself together for the entire week," says Ethridge.
Ethridge finally said yes, if her boss would allow her to take a week off work. He readily agreed. Ethridge says she was terrified because she had never been a camp counselor.
"She was a great counselor. The kids loved her. She was patient and helpful. She is passionate about children who are sick," says Cabading.
"Once you get there, I think you can't imagine not going back," says Ethridge. "I think we have so many counselors that return because of that. You go and you can see what a difference it makes to these kids. It's not just camp to them."
Ethridge said that Pearl, a camper who had lost one of her legs to cancer, embodies the reason for the camp.
Pearl was very self-conscious about her prosthesis. Two years ago on a Camp Happy Days' trip to SeaWorld, Pearl spent the whole trip wearing long pants so no one would focus on her disability.
On the last day of the trip, Pearl asked to ride her favorite roller-coaster, the Kraken, with her sister. She had already ridden it at least 15 times, says Ethridge, but this time the attendant noticed Pearl's prosthetic leg when she was buckling up and told her she had to take it off for safety reasons. Pearl adamantly refused.
"We all left in tears. Pearl was just so upset. It was heart-wrenching for everyone, but we knew where the attendant was coming from," says Ethridge.
A few months later at the summer camp, Ethridge noticed Pearl was wearing shorts. Ethridge says she realized that Pearl felt comfortable enough there that it didn't matter. At the end of the week, Pearl took her prosthetic leg off to go swimming across the lake.
"That just blew me away. She had come so far in the course of one week at camp. After camp, Pearl called her camp counselor and told her that she was going to wear shorts to the mall and was going to wear them the first day of school because she knew it didn't matter anymore. That's camp," says Ethridge, her eyes welling up.
She took the position as executive director that October.
Camp gives the children a chance to just be kids, without being defined by their disease. The camp tries to provide them with as many activities as possible, since they tend to miss out on childhood activities such as sleepovers and birthday parties because of treatment, says Ethridge. A medical staff is also available for children who need medication or to have their blood drawn.
"As a camp counselor, you see it from the kids' side. They are very shy, very withdrawn. A lot of times they aren't able to go to school so they have very few social opportunities. You see them really open up by the end of the week. They find out that they really aren't any different than other kids," says Ethridge.
'A new role'
In her career, Ethridge moved from the credit union to other things. She became the coordinator of Trident Area Safe Kids Coalition at MUSC Children's Hospital. There, she worked to prevent accidental injuries to children by communicating with different community partners to put together injury prevention programs. She also educated children and their parents on what could be done to prevent injuries.
After 11 years as coordinator, a member of the board of directors from Camp Happy Days approached Ethridge about the executive director position.
"This was something I always thought about wanting to do, but I never thought I'd have the opportunity. It was very scary because I knew it would forever change my involvement," says Ethridge.
Ethridge wondered if she really wanted to give up being a camp counselor, but in the end, she says she knew it was the right thing to do.
As executive director, Ethridge is in charge of overseeing all operations and reaching out to the community to raise awareness about Camp Happy Days and let people know how they can help. She also interacts with families and volunteers. The camp has almost 160 volunteers, along with the 160 kids with cancer and their siblings.
"All the programs we offer are completely free to the families, so we have to raise all that money on our own. This year has been a real struggle," says Ethridge.
A job at a camp for children with cancer might seem like an odd position for someone who says she hates sad movies and fears losing someone she loves. Ethridge says the camp more than lives up to its name.
Reach Elizabeth Maybank at firstname.lastname@example.org.