Student, alumni volunteers help kids
rise above the stresses of cancer © Oct. 21, 2011, Norwich University Office of Communications

Josh Brunton and a Ta-Kum-Ta camper give the ropes course a thumbs up during the August 2011 session.

photo courtesy of Josh BruntonJosh Brunton and a Ta-Kum-Ta camper give the ropes course a thumbs up during the August 2011 session.

Norwich pre-med student Josh Brunton compared his arrival at Camp Ta-Kum-Ta to walking into someone else’s family reunion. Old friends were hugging and greeting one another joyfully, and he knew virtually no one.

Awkwardness disappeared quickly, said Brunton, a senior biology major from Wolfeboro, N.H., and he was welcomed warmly. Camp Ta-Kum-Ta, in South Hero, Vt., is open for just a week each summer, serving children diagnosed with or recovering from cancer at no cost. Brunton submitted a late application to the camp after an internship opportunity fell through, and didn’t expect to be accepted. The result was a summer volunteer experience at a place he called “magical.”

Giving back should be almost second nature.

Josh Brunton
Senior biology major

“It’s hard to get in as a new staff member, because people keep coming back,” he said. “I was honored.”

His acceptance may have been partly due to his Norwich enrollment. The country’s oldest private military college has produced a network of people who make a significant contribution to Ta-Kum-Ta’s all-volunteer staff. Brunton first learned about the camp from Jane Donahue, a 1983 graduate and member of Norwich’s Board of Fellows, who he met at a student forum. Donahue has been involved with Ta-Kum-Ta for 17 years. Her twin sister June Heston, also a Norwich grad, has been volunteering even longer.

In fact, Brunton noticed a junior ring on the finger of the first person he met at orientation. Like Brunton, ’73 graduate Albie Lewis was a member of the Mountain Cold Weather Company [MCW] who worked at the camp as a ropes-course facilitator, or “Ropie.” He followed his wife to Ta-Kum-Ta 12 years ago, where he worked with former MCW team leader Jimmy Segar. Lewis’ daughter, Kristen, is another Norwich grad who volunteers at the camp.

Because of his MCW experience, Brunton joined Lewis on the ropes course, taking groups of children through team-building exercises that progress from the ground up to rope installations 30 feet in the air. The purpose is to build confidence and give the kids a thrilling experience.

He admits feeling some apprehension coming into the job. Although Brunton has volunteered in hospitals and lost his grandmother to pancreatic cancer, he worried a bit about the emotional toll of working with sick kids, and whether that would require special sensitivity or attention to safety. Turns out, the painful experiences of campers are left completely behind.

“Nobody’s talking about cancer,” said Brunton.

For Lewis, Ta-Kum-Ta offers a wonderful escape. In addition to the horrible experience of sickness and chemotherapy, these children tend to be treated differently, like “the kid with cancer,” everywhere they go. Not so at camp.

“These kids, who have gone through so much and been so incredibly brave ... they just get to be kids again,” said Lewis, a Vermonter who also volunteered for the Berlin Fire Department for 25 years. “It really teaches you what’s important.”

“It is life altering,” said Donahue, herself a survivor of cervical cancer. “You really leave there each year with a perspective on life you wouldn’t otherwise have.”

Brunton agreed his experience helped him look at things in a new light. He recalled a moment when two girls, some of Ta-Kum-Ta’s youngest campers, were on an element made of rope and tires trying to climb as high as they could. One girl, who was confident and enthusiastic, decided she had gone far enough about half way. The second girl, much more hesitant, kept going and eventually made it to the top. The first girl, initially disappointed, was encouraged by the second and both left with a feeling of success.

“Even though they hadn’t accomplished this element together, they accomplished something else together,” he said.

Brunton compared this to his own experiences as a rook in the Corps of Cadets at Norwich, when students must learn to work together and find new ways to define success. This played out during sophomore year when Brunton made the difficult decision to leave the Corps for a civilian lifestyle to focus on staying competitive for medical school. His companions in the Corps were behind him all the way.

“All of my rook buddies are really supportive,” said Brunton. “They’re my family here.”

Brunton added the military lifestyle that shaped Norwich seems to foster a spirit of volunteerism he hasn’t encountered in other places, where people tend to focus on themselves more. Volunteering, he said, is necessary to a successful society.

“Giving back should be almost second nature,” said Brunton.

Camp leadership has noticed qualities Brunton brought to Ta-Kum-Ta, as well.

“When he came in, he had a very open mind,” said Ted Kessler, founder and executive director for the camp. “He accepted responsibility, and he did his job.”

Brunton can’t wait to return next year, and is questioning other doctors on staff on ways to fit camp into a medical-school schedule.

“It’s a chance to help people who are going through what I know nothing about, but which has definitely touched my life,” he said.