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HEARTBREAK IS CEMENT FOR CAMP THAT SMILES

The loudspeaker blared the stirring theme music from the Olympiad, and 63 scared and sickly children, some of them sobbing and 20 of them dying, tumbled from the yellow school buses into the arms of waiting "huggers."

And the huggers, for the most part, were as apprehensive as their prospective charges because this was a strange, fragile and brittle cargo.

These children had come from hospital beds and from the arms of protective parents in the Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse areas to participate in the very first session of Camp Good Days and Special Times, a camp for kids with cancer.

It was late August 1980, and the concept of this camp was the test tube for an idea -- an idea that some said was zany and the more temperate labeled risky. It would succeed, or most likely fail, amid the idyllic splendor of the ancient and beautiful Adirondack Mountains. And on the day the Olympiad was played, the die was cast.

The results of that experiment will be manifested today with the official opening of a $2 million, 25-acre permanent campsite on the shores of beautiful Keuka Lake, dedicated to life and to children and their families. But that first, important big test came on that August afternoon in 1980 and, to a lesser extent, in the years that followed.

Inside the cabins in the dead of night, especially during the first two days, some children sobbed from loneliness, and some from pain. But to the counselors who feigned sleep and quietly listened, there were the whispered sounds of unending conversation among fledgling campers as strangers became bosom buddies and compared notes about a world into which they had been thrust but did not understand.

"I've been a good girl," one camper said, "so why am I being punished?"

They were a rag-tag crew, some bald and some amputees, ravaged not only by the disease but also by the treatment for it, and all of them mocked by their peers back home, all of them diminished and robbed of their carefree days of childhood.

But in their common pain and disease, friendships were forged. In Teddi Mervis' cabin, 10-year-old Teddi and two other girls pricked their fingers with a needle, mingled their blood in an Indian ritual and made a pact that they would be friends for life -- or for as long as life lasted.

Teddi's life lasted for one more camp session, and in February, 1982, blind, deaf, and grotesque in appearance, she lapsed into unconsciousness and died of an incurable brain tumor.

In the beginning, the camp had been the gift of a loving father to a dying daughter. But in its "field tests" and in its success, especially that first year, Camp Good Days became Teddi's legacy to all kids with this dreaded childhood killer.

No postscript on one little girl's life and the value of life itself to a child ever was more poignant than when the camp opened the following summer and one of Teddi's camp friends, horribly disfigured and by then barely able to walk, crawled up the stairs of a cabin where Teddi's father, Gary Mervis, was sitting on the porch.

"Mr. Mervis," she said, "I'm awfully sorry about Teddi."

On that day, any consideration about abandoning the camp and getting on with his life disappeared, Mervis recalled. The decision was now "go."

Those first days were heady ones. And memorable, too.

Ten-year-old Marv Cummings of Forestville had come from a sick bed in Roswell Park Memorial Institute but he was Hollywood handsome, and it seemed that he had been sent there by Central Casting to make the young girls swoon. And even though many of them wore bandannas to hide their baldness, the democracy of common suffering had erased their self-consciousness.

It was a time when he, a prince charming, and Teddi, a fairy princess, experienced their first puppy love. Together, hand-in-hand, they strolled the trails. And all of the campers reveled in it because they saw something that was normal and good, and because they had been given back a childhood lost.

"It made us feel good," her father recalled.

Marv, whose cancer is in remission, is supposed to return here today as part of a sentimental pilgrimage by a group of 40 who attended the first camp and survived childhood cancer.

To Mervis, who had a game plan for life and was well on his way to success in business, the thought of continuing the camp, begging money, and immersing himself in its day-to-day operations, was not all cakes and ale. There were also the demands on his time that took away from his wife, Sheri, and their son and daughter, Tod and Kim. There were times when he felt that they had suffered enough.

Sheri, as introverted as her husband is extroverted, lived outside the glare of all of the publicity and hoopla that went with fund raising. She was a private person in a public business, and whatever privacy was left to her, she cherished. But at camp, she contrived to mother every sick child in a very personal, touching way, often comforting them on her knee when they cried, often prodding them to clean their plates.

Last week, surveying this beautiful new permanent campsite and home for the "cancer kids," Sheri turned to her husband and whispered, "I'm proud of you for what you've done."

And if 1982, with Teddi's death, was a bad year for the Mervises, it was the banner year and turning point for Camp Good Days and Special Times.

It was the year that Buffalo stirred and finally became a player. Until then, its finances had been drawn from the finite resources of Rochester.

But in '82, a fledgling group of parents of Buffalo children with cancer, headed by Dan Beutler, ran a fund-raising marathon and an auction. And The Buffalo News, its stories pointing out the dire need, deeply touched readers.

They gave from the heart and they gave what they could -- sometimes it was $2, sometimes $20. Together, Mervis said, it resulted in the decision to buy and build a permanent camp site.

They ranged from Dick Michael, whose tiny gin mill across from the Broadway Market has raised an average of nearly $15,000 a year, to entrepreneur Paul Snyder Jr., giving up his time to head an annual fund-raiser.

Doug Hartmayer of Tops never stopped coming up with promotions, and last week alone, his store sent Camp Good Days an $11,685.47 check.

Charles Barcelona of Bells always asked, "What do you need and then delivered?"

Al Pastor of Buffalo's Pepsi family installed pop spigots on the grounds that never once went dry. Trico and its employees, facing their own problems, and United Parcel Service, Buffalo, funneled nearly $100,000 into the camp treasury.

A response typical of Buffalo came this week when the opening festivities required an elaborate public address system. Despite the fact that graduations and weddings made it his busiest season, Rick Wirth, owner of System of Sound, asked Mervis, "What time do you want me there?"

Once rolling, Buffalo became a financial juggernaut and the money flowed from everything from penny jars in restaurants to car-sale commissions.

"If having our own facility was in the future, it was Buffalo's response that brought the future to now," Mervis said.

And today, in a sense, is Gary Mervis Day. Here, in a one-of-a-kind facility that is being dedicated to restoring childhood to cancer-ravaged kids, Mervis, now 44, has done something that few people have done in a lifetime.

He has changed America's way of dealing with the needs of sick and sometimes terminally ill children. Therefore, he has changed America. . . .

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