WINCHESTER — Erin Schulte was just 4 years old when she was diagnosed with cancer.
While she was undergoing treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, Schulte’s parents got her involved with Special Love Inc., a Winchester-based nonprofit organization with an array of support and recreational programs for pediatric cancer patients and their families.
Special Love is perhaps best known for its annual Camp Fantastic at the Northern Virginia 4-H Educational Center near Front Royal, exclusively for children ages 7 to 17 being treated for, or in remission from, various forms of cancer.
For one week each year, kids at Camp Fantastic get to forget about battling a terrible disease and can instead laugh, play, ride horses, go fishing and make friends — just like any other child at summer camp.
“Camp Fantastic was a great experience when I was a kid,” said Schulte, who is from Centreville. “It allowed me to be a kid, which was really important after going through chemotherapy. Being with kids who were going through the same thing as me was great.”
Now 23, Schulte is cancer free and in her final year with Shenandoah University’s Physician Assistant Studies program.
Each year, the program’s graduating class raises money at a special gala and gives the proceeds to charity. This year, inspired by Schulte’s experiences at Camp Fantastic, the Class of 2019 decided to give $8,000 to Special Love.
Robin Couch Cardillo, director of development for Special Love, said the donation will be put to good use.
“We are definitely going to use it for our campers,” Cardillo said. “Camp Fantastic is coming up in August, but we have [other] camps year-round and certainly have lots of need for donations like this.”
Special Love does not charge kids to participate in Camp Fantastic. It also offers family weekends and special events for siblings and parents of pediatric cancer patients at very low cost.
“We thought it was a really special place to donate to,” said Haley Johnson, fundraising chairwoman for the Physician Assistant Studies Class of 2019.
Cardillo said she wasn’t surprised to learn that Schulte was among the Class of 2019 students.
“It’s not unusual for some of our former campers to go into the medical field,” Cardillo said. “They’re immersed at a young age with hospitals and doctors, and they feel that love and caring and turn it into something positive.”
“You want to give back,” added Schulte, who graduates in December. “That’s what I did.”
Before she collects her diploma and enters the workforce, Schulte said she’s planning a return visit to Camp Fantastic in August.
“It will be nice to go back and not as a camper,” she said.
The money donated Friday was collected from ticket sales, raffles and auctions of donated items at the 13th annual Physician Assistant Fundraising Gala held March 17 at Shenandoah University’s Brandt Student Center.
In addition to the $8,000 for Special Love, the gala also raised $2,000 for The Laurel Center in Winchester and another $2,000 for El Ayudante in Nicaragua.
The Laurel Center, the Winchester area’s only organization dedicated to serving survivors of domestic and sexual violence, recently opened a new headquarters and emergency shelter on North Cameron Street.
“We have a very strong, female-driven class and we liked the idea of helping women who needed a little more support,” Johnson said.
El Ayudante is a humanitarian Christian organization committed to improving the overall quality of life for the residents of Nicaragua. One way it does that is by hosting groups that provide education, medicine, construction and skills training.
Shenandoah University has sent student volunteers to El Ayudante in Nicaragua for years, Johnson said, but this year’s trips were canceled due to recent political demonstrations against President Daniel Ortega’s Sandanista regime that led to the deaths of dozens of protesters in the Central American nation.
“We donated a couple thousand dollars to them,” Johnson said of El Ayudante, “just so we could help keep their mission strong and keep them going.”
For more information, visit Special Love Inc. at specialove.org, The Laurel Center at thelaurelcenter.org, El Ayudante at eanicaragua.com and the Shenandoah University Physician Assistant Studies program at su.edu/physician-assistant.
— Contact Brian Brehm at email@example.com