As you enter the facility, you’re drawn to the sounds of children having fun in the pool. You hear the laughter and see the splashing water, so you know there’s a party going on just beyond the main cabin.
This happy place is located nearly in the middle of nowhere, if you consider rural Shelby Co. somewhere. Indian Summer Camp has been open to kids for 30 years, and this week, enjoyed a record 108 campers.
A quick glance of the pool and you see kids, all shapes and sizes, ages 4-18, having a great time, escaping the 90 degree heat.
But upon closer inspection, one kid doesn’t appear to be a kid at all. Josh Harrellson, the former Wildcat and current Houston Rockets center, seems to be the center of attention. The 6-foot-10 Harrellson stands much taller than the rest of the group.
Harrellson was tossed into the pool (I’m sure he willing went in) by several kids, shoes and all. He has a huge smile on his face and one young boy is hanging onto his shoulders. Like moths to a flame, the kids at Indian Summer Camp flock to Harrellson.
If they’re hurting, or feeling ill, you can’t tell. The only indication that anything might be wrong is seeing a couple of young boys with bald heads.
Indian Summer Camp offers a reprieve for children who are battling cancer. The camp relies 100 percent upon donations, which allows kids to attend free.
Kids like Cameron, a 10-year-old from Barbourville, who makes Indian Summer Camp a summer destination. He’s been making the trip across the state since he was four.
“This place is like the best place to come, because kids don’t really get to get out much when they’re like us,” Cameron said.
Indian Summer Camp has become a yearly destination for Harrellson, too. After being encouraged to visit last year, Harrellson, so moved by what he saw, promised the kids he’d be back.
And he didn’t disappoint.
“Seeing all these kids smile, being able to interact with them, making them jump up and down,” Harrellson said, when asked why he returned.
Harrellson isn’t the only athlete to visit. Just the day before, several UK football players entertained the kids. But who better to amuse the kids than one of the biggest kids ever to wear the blue and white?
Amy Steinkuhl is the camp director and she knows the importance of having Harrellson, and others like him, around.
“We’re thankful for that and the opportunity for these kids to meet their idols whom they see on TV,” she said. “It’s wonderful for those young men and women of the sports world to come back and reconnect. It’s tough, but it’s fun.”
What makes it tough is seeing the kids who appear sick; even tougher interacting with kids who appear normal. Cameron, for instance, is full of life and has a head full of hair. But he’s very ill.
“It doesn’t matter what your hair color is, or if you don’t have hair,” Steinkuhl said. “It doesn’t matter how many scars you have. You’re still part of the family.”
Harrellson now considers Indian Summer Camp part of his family.
“Even if it’s only five minutes that I spend with them, that’s five minutes that they might not have been happy before. So giving kids lifelong memories and putting smiles on their faces, that’s my satisfaction,” he said.
On this day, Harrellson, along with his brother Matt, help with crafts, swim and shoot baskets with the campers. He’s vowed to return to Indian Summer Camp every year.
“Seeing people like this, that are so happy when they have things wrong with them, makes me even more happy for all the great things I have in my life.”
Harrellson knows for some kids, the disease will win. Steinkuhl urges him to keep in all in perspective.
“You want them to know no matter how long their time is on earth, that they will always be loved,” she said. “That people will always be waiting for them with open arms, if they come back to camp. If their time on earth is done, we hope that they’ll be waiting for us with open arms when our time is done.”
No doubt, there are some who think pro athletes have big egos; Harrellson shows that at least his heart is as big. If not bigger.
Those are the highlights.. stay tuned.