WHEN LORI SPARROW was 19, she participated in a 90-day Outward Bound course wherein she sailed from Maine down to the Florida Keys in a boat that resembled a Viking ship with 23 other intrepid — and oftentimes grumpy — young adults. She clearly remembers telling herself, during the required three-day solo camp on a remote island, that no matter what, she wanted to make a difference in people’s lives.
Now, as executive director of Camp Okizu, Sparrow feels she’s doing just that. Okizu (pronounced oak-eye-zoo) is a Native American word that means “healing from a hurt”; set on 500 acres with three lakes in the Northern Sierra, the camp has the express mission “to support families with childhood cancer.” In the past 35 years, Okizu has served more than 10,000 patients and their families. Every summer it hosts seven weeklong sessions, offered free to families who have a child or children suffering from cancer, be it leukemia or a tumor. Three of the sessions are devoted to children ages 6 to 18 who have the disease; another four sessions host siblings of young patients. Family camp weekends, offered during fall and spring, include programs for teens and bereaved families.
Sparrow, 50, lives in an Eichler-built home in Lucas Valley with her husband, Paul, a writer, and their two daughters, Claudia, 15, who goes to Terra Linda High School and is a member of the Marin Environmental Leadership Program, and Annika, 16, who attends the Marin School of the Arts, a musical theater program at Novato High School. For more than 25 years in the Bay Area, Sparrow has been active in fundraising, including major drives for the California Academy of Sciences and the San Francisco Ballet, and she worked with the late Warren and Chris Hellman on philanthropic projects.
Initially, what brought you to Camp Okizu?
In 2014, when the camp approached me, the 9-year-old daughter of one of my best friends had just died of cancer. And a few years before that, my dad died from an aggressive form of cancer — glioblastoma brain cancer. So the cause was near and dear to my heart. Also, I strongly believe in the healing power of nature and the transformative power of, well, fun — there’s no better word for it. And the folks involved with Okizu are a fantastic group of caring, fun people. One of the original Okizu doctors, Dr. Michael Amylon, from Stanford, was so inspiring to me. In addition to being a longtime fundraiser, I am also a trained marriage and family therapist and I was impressed when Mike told me that Okizu involves the whole family, facilitates peer support and fosters an accepting community environment. Also, right away I felt that John Bell — the founder of Golden Bear Travel as well as a founder of Camp Okizu — and his family were my kind of people. I wanted to be a part of all of that, so it was a good match for me.
Was there a moment you knew you’d made the right choice?
When I first came to camp I saw a 10-year-old girl who could barely walk be carried over to the zip line. We all held our breath as she was harnessed in. Then the counselor ran her down the hill and launched her into the air. To our surprise, she let go of the rope and spread her arms and flew like a bird to the other side. We all cheered and cried. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. At that moment, I knew I was at home.
How do parents of young cancer patients hear about Okizu?
Our children come from all over Northern California: Marin, the Peninsula and San Francisco and also Sacramento and Sonoma County. Parents are referred to us by the pediatric oncology doctors of Kaiser Permanente, Sutter Health, UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, UC Davis Medical Center and other Northern California hospitals that have a pediatric oncology department.
What are some typical activities?
Gosh, just about everything that any summer camp would offer: there’s a ropes course, there’s archery, boating, hiking, fishing, and nightly campfires. A really popular activity is called Baseball Lunch. It takes place on day two when campers often get homesick. What makes it fun is everyone wears their favorite baseball shirts and caps and the counselors mime a baseball game in the lodge and that’s followed by counselors acting as ballpark vendors while the campers cheer for hot dogs and Cracker Jacks. Counselors throw goodies that campers have to catch before eating them. There is loud music and everyone loves it.
Some camp activities sound a bit risky. What if a young cancer patient gets injured? Or needs to continue his or her chemotherapy?
Oh, there’s a small hospital at Camp Okizu and a pediatric oncology doctor, and two or three oncology nurses are present at all times when cancer patients are attending camp. And we do what we can to make it all look camp-like. Our hospital is called the Inn, the medical staff dress like camp counselors and there is a drive-up window for wheelchairs and nightly meds. By the way, though we have over 800 volunteers involved with our overall program, each summer we are especially in need of male counselors ages 18–25. Including orientation, it’s a nine-day commitment.
Are there camps similar to Camp Okizu elsewhere in the U. S.?
Yes, but most are operated by the hospitals themselves, whereas we serve a number of hospitals. Probably the most famous similar organization is the Hole in the Wall Camp, founded by the actor Paul Newman in 1986, who was also a major donor to Okizu during his lifetime, and his daughter Nell still supports us. Paul would often say that so many things came to him by sheer luck in his life and he wanted to give back to kids who were on the other side of luck — maybe to even out the score a bit. Also, I must say that while there are probably more than two dozen camps similar to Camp Okizu, partly because we’ve been around for 36 years, founded and based in Marin, we are looked upon as the country’s premier pediatric cancer camp, the one others seek to emulate.
What is Camp Okizu’s budget?
We operate on an annual budget of $2.5 million. In 2000, we purchased our 500-acre camp for $10 million and have now paid the mortgage down to $1.4 million. September is Childhood Cancer Awareness month and, fortunately, we’ve just received a $1 million challenge grant from Dr. Art and Debbie Ablin. Art is one of Okizu’s founding pediatric oncology doctors, and if we raise another $400,000, we will own our own home free and clear.
How do you raise money?
Okizu is supported by individuals as well as foundations and corporations. Nothing is too big or too small. This year a 4-year-old girl nicknamed Pink Lady Bug emptied her piggy bank to help bring kids with cancer to camp. Lately, a great deal of support has come from Neil and Kathy Hennessy, the folks behind Novato’s Hennessy Fund, and our newest corporate donor is Google. Oh, and, remember when I mentioned Camp Okizu’s Baseball Lunch? Well, San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey and his wife, Kristen, have taken up pediatric cancer as their main cause. Finally, supermodel Christy Turlington, at one time an Okizu counselor, made a nice donation, so we named one of our lakes at camp after her father; it’s called Captain T’s Lake. There are several ways to be involved with Okizu. Individuals or companies can come to camp for a work weekend or serve on our Okizu Council that meets at places like Google and Pixar to plan strategy. We want to make being a donor as enjoyable and rewarding as being a camper is.