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An underwater escape

Rotary's Camp Florida gives lessons in scuba diving during a family retreat.

By SUSAN THURSTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 17, 2000


BRANDON -- They came to Rotary's Camp Florida to get away from the prodding, poking and pricking that has dominated their short lives. Someplace where having cancer wouldn't matter. Someplace where having fun was the doctor's orders.

About 50 children ages 3 to 14 attended the family weekend at the Rotary Club's retreat in Brandon. They played games, made crafts and, as an added treat, learned to scuba dive in the pool on Saturday. Their parents enjoyed massages and peace of mind.

The event was Camp Good Days and Special Times' first in five years. Families came from across Central Florida to participate.

"We don't counsel. We just show them a good time," said longtime volunteer Maxine Magruder of Orlando. "It kind of helps them forget that life hasn't been too good or fair to them."

For John and Debra Naughton of Palm Coast, the weekend offered their son, Michael, a chance to try something he has always wanted to do: breathe underwater. Given a diagnosis of cancer when he was 2, Michael has been in remission for five years.

"They go through so much, they deserve to have a little extra opportunity," Debra Naughton said.

Michael and the other children took to the water with ease. Within minutes they were gliding along the bottom.

"Mommy. Did you see how good I was? I wish I could do it more," Michael shouted as he emerged from the pool.

His dad admitted he was a little leery about the kids scuba diving. What if they were afraid? What if it was too hard? Then he saw them in action.

"(The instructors) really get them going quickly. It really gets their confidence up," he said.

The underwater lessons were providedby the University of South Florida's scuba program and Burdines. Depth Perception in Brandon supplied the child-size fins and masks.

Community contributions made the weekend possible, said George LaBanca, chairman of Camp Good Days' advisory board. Everything from art supplies to ice cream was donated. About 60 volunteers kept the activities flowing. Half of the children slept overnight.

"We want them to forget about them being sick," he said.

The survival rate for children with cancer has improved dramatically in the past two decades to about 80 percent, LaBanca said. Some, however, won't make it.

Bags filled with prescription bottles in the camp's infirmary offered proof that, behind their smiles and giggles, many of the children have life-threatening illnesses. Those with the largest bags were probably the sickest, LaBanca lamented.

Six-year-old Travis Hatton of South Tampa made it to camp, but didn't feel well. He rested on his bunk bed while the others splashed in the pool, but came out for arts and crafts and ran around with the ducks near the pond.

His parents, Mac and MaryAnne Hatton, were grateful to the volunteers for making their stay so comfortable. Opportunities like these let Travis act like everyone else his age.

"He's like any kid," Mr. Hatton said. "He likes to have fun."

- Susan Thurston can be reached at (813) 226-3463 or thurston@sptimes.com.

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