U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) employee T'Jae Ellis can't help but watch her daughter, Grace Callwood, in wonderment. The little girl who was diagnosed with Stage 4 Non-Hodgkin lymphoma at age seven is now a spritely 10-year-old in remission whose battle with cancer inspired her and her mother to create initiatives to bring happiness to homeless, sick and foster children.
"I'm pretty proud of that," Ellis said.
Callwood, an avid reader, said that when she and her mother began thinking of ways they could help disenfranchised children, they thought of starting a library at Anna's House, a transitional housing community for homeless women and children in Harford County, Maryland.
"But they already had enough books," Callwood said. "So we came up with the idea that we could start a summer camp."
The month-long "Camp Happy" kicked off June 22 at Anna's House and combines fun activities with educational material, focusing on a different theme each week. The first week's theme was "Young Explorers" and included lessons and activities that encouraged the children to explore the natural world, science, and future career options. Subsequent camp weeks include activities about superheroes and photography, with the month culminating in a carnival.
"We're just going to try to celebrate as much as we can on the last day. We will be creating and designing any games that the kids want to build [and] play those games all day," Callwood said.
Anna's House Program Director Cynthia Wood helped Ellis and Callwood with the camp's initial planning stages. She said she is thrilled to see children attend Camp Happy because it fills the educational gap that summertime creates.
"We kind of shared our vision: that we would really like to do something for our kids, especially during the summer, but [have] some focused activities to keep them engaged in learning," Wood said. "It just kind of blossomed into Camp Happy. They [Grace and T'Jae] took the whole idea and ran with it."
Wood added that Anna's House currently houses children ages 3 to 13, so Ellis and Callwood created a camp curriculum that suits all ages.
"I think they've done a very good job of thinking of ways to engage all of the kids in a level of learning that is appropriate for them," Wood said.
Dr. Rose Pesce-Rodriguez, ARL research chemist and Dr. Steven Dean, ARL mechanical engineer dropped by on the camp's third day to teach the children about air pressure and how it relates to the weather. Both said they hoped they could serve as role models and that their lesson sparked the children's curiosity.
Dean said he hoped the kids learned that "there's cool stuff in science."
"It's all around us, and they can do it right now," Pesce-Rodriguez added.
ARL neuroscientist Dr. Jean Vettelalso visited the camp to teach the children about the regions of the human brain and how the motor cortex is organized. She showed how the brain affects various parts of the body with a two-point discrimination test using toothpicks.
The experiment demonstrated that parts of the body, like the face and hands, are more sensitive than other parts, like the torso and legs. The children also learned how the amount and location of neurons in the brain affect each body part that particular region controls.
Additionally, Dr. Cortney Bradford hooked several of the children to an electroencephalogram machine to measure their brain waves.
Cadan Seymour, 8, said he's looking forward to telling his teacher what he learned at summer camp.
"We're learning about inside your head. It's fun," he said.
Wood said Camp Happy not only serves as a chance for students to continue learning during the summer, but said she also hopes it acts as a morale booster for children who have experienced adverse circumstances.
"They [campers] know that this is a special thing just for them. And a lot of our families just really haven't experienced that very much. They're more marginalized, and this kind of makes them central. They're not invisible; they're important," she said.
Ellis said that her daughter has always found ways to help others, but her altruism really blossomed when she became sick with cancer and started taking steroids.
"It made me gain weight so I couldn't fit in any of my back-to-school clothes, and I couldn't go to school because I wasn't well enough," Callwood said. "I had heard about this family [who] lost their house and they had two girls, and so I donated my clothes to them since I couldn't use them. And I kept doing small projects like that."
Callwood created Camp Happy and other service initiatives through her nonprofit organization, The We Cancerve Movement, which creates giving opportunities that can be supported by the community to bring happiness to homeless, ill and foster children. For more information, visit www.wecancerve.org.