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Cancer Survivor Repaying a Gift From Summer Camp

June 21, 1996|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Michael Zacuto is a city boy. But he says it was a mountain camp for dying children that gave him a life.

He was 10 years old and suffering from a brain tumor in 1986 when his parents wrangled him a bunk at the weeklong outing for children with cancer. He returned home from the rugged hills above Malibu stronger than anyone expected.

"It was wonderful," Zacuto said. "I'd been handled like a delicate piece of china in the hospital. At camp I was just a normal kid."

Zacuto was back at the mountain camp the other day--this time as a counselor helping show 137 youngsters with life-threatening diseases that they are normal kids, too.

That's the message that has been delivered by Camp JCA Sholom to more than 1,500 children since the summer outings were started 12 years ago for young cancer patients at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

The program was broadened in 1988 when the nonprofit Dream Street Foundation was formed. This summer it is staging seven camps in California, Arkansas, New Jersey, Arizona and Mississippi. Sick children from as far as Russia have signed up to attend.

The outings are free for youngsters, many of whom come directly from their hometown hospitals, where they are being treated for such things as cancer, blood disorders and AIDS.

Children receive uninterrupted chemotherapy treatments and medication in the camp, which is staffed by four doctors, 15 nurses and physical therapists and 80 counselors.

No child has ever died at camp--although four or five a year succumb to illness afterward, according to Patty Grubman, a theatrical producer from Beverly Hills who runs the foundation with her brother Billy Grubman, a businessman.

"Their experience here has meant so much to some of these kids that they have been buried in their camp clothing," Grubman said.

Summer camps for sick children are not new. There are 61 groups in the United States that sponsor them, according to Shirley Walch, executive director of the American Camping Assn.'s Southern California chapter.

The Grubmans use their celebrity connections to arrange visits by professional baseball players, Hollywood stuntmen and trips to places such as entertainer Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch.

But it's the presence of former campers such as Zacuto that often has the most impact. As a counselor, the 20-year-old stays in a cabin with nine boys and assists them with arts and crafts, archery and rope-bridge games.

"It gives kids hope to see older kids who have survived," said Dr. Evan Koursh, a Los Angeles doctor who works at Dream Street camps in Malibu and Arizona.

In Zacuto's case, there is also "no question" that the camping experience helped him "withstand the rigors of chemotherapy," said Koursh, who helped treat Zacuto 10 years ago.

Zacuto's cancer has been in remission since then. But it has left him partially paralyzed and bothered by a motor-coordination problem that causes his left arm to involuntarily rise.

"As a kid there's a lot of pressure to fit in," Zacuto said. "When I came to camp the first time, my arm kept popping up and this other kid, Fernando, said: 'Oh, mine does too.' After that, I could be myself. The pressure of trying to fit into society was gone while I was here."

*

Zacuto said returning to the annual camp helped ease him through adolescence. It also helped shape his goals.

His college entrance essay three years ago dealt with his camping experience and his friendship with a camper who later died of cancer. Now a junior at Harvard University, Zacuto is studying chemistry with an eye toward trying to design anti-cancer drugs.

"A Harvard evaluator told me that the essay had everything to do with him getting in," said Zacuto's father, Tarzana computer leasing company owner Bob Zacuto.

Young Zacuto said that working as a counselor has put summer camp in a whole new light for him. Not only does he cheer on his young charges during activities, he cheers them up when they are fatigued or sluggish from medication.

Zacuto "understands everything. . . . If you feel sick or tired, he doesn't ask why," said camper David Schulman, 12, a Framingham, Mass., youngster undergoing chemotherapy for a stomach tumor.

"A dozen times a day I tell someone that I used to be a camper. I want them to know they don't face insurmountable odds, that life is to be lived, not feared," Zacuto said.

"I'll be coming to this camp as long as it's alive."

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