UAFS student helps children with cancer
When the fall semester gets underway in August, Charles Ruiz will have enjoyed a summer of fishing, canoeing and hiking. But that’s not all. He’s also spent time making life brighter for children with cancer.
It’s only natural that Ruiz, who lives in Fort Smith and attends the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, would return to Camp Dream Street as a counselor. After all, he first went there a little over six years ago as a teenager with leukemia. He’s in remission.
Camp Dream Street is a one-week summer camp near Sallisaw where children with cancer or other blood-forming diseases are given a week to enjoy life. Ruiz is enthusiastic about what happens at the camp, operated by the We Care Foundation.
“I think it’s awesome,” said the 22-year-old. “It’s a really great program. It gives you an opportunity to get away from doctors, nurses and needles especially. Every one of those kids can tell you there are needles, needles, needles everywhere. It gives them a week to focus on other things.”
Those other things include fishing, canoeing, hiking, swimming, kitchen activities and arts and crafts. And those activities are led by counselors like Ruiz, many former cancer survivors themselves who donate their time to the camp.
“I tell them, ‘I’m not here for me. I’m here for you, to make you happy.’”
Participants in Camp Dream Street are ages six to 16. After being a camper and “graduating,” many go back as camp leaders-in-training. After they reach age 21, they can be chosen as a counselor. That’s what Ruiz did.
Being a counselor gives Ruiz a chance to share his personal story, which some might think is totally about his leukemia diagnosis. He’s quick to tell you there’s more, and it’s not pretty.
Ruiz, who is the son of Dennis Ruiz of Van Buren and Charleen Costes of Fort Smith, was attending Van Buren High School when he started a downward spiral that included doing things he shouldn’t have done. Even though he dropped out of high school, he did get his GED the following year. Yet, his first effort at college was not good.
“I came here, and I wasn’t ready for it,” he said. “I failed at first, two classes. I messed up. I messed up bad. There were a lot of reasons. But I had to find a way to get out of that.”
Ruiz credits a friend’s mother with setting him on the right path, and he now has plans to get a nursing degree. He has a piece of advice for children and other students who don’t believe they can turn their lives around like he did.
“You can always pull yourself out of it,” he said. “You just have to realize you’re not alone, that there are people out there who are dedicating their lives to finding out what you need, people who are willing to help you.”
He said the We Care Foundation even gives scholarships to those who have put in their time at Camp Dream Street. Additional financial aid is awarded to students who want to attend UAFS.
“I told the older students at Camp Dream Street that I had messed up and that I didn’t do so well, but I’ve got a second chance to do better.”
He feels good about working as a counselor at the camp and about sharing his story with others. He even sees some who take notice once they hear what he has to say.
“I have changed a lot of people’s perspectives,” he said. “And you have to remember that there are people out there with worse problems than yours.”
Ruiz has discovered, though, that not everyone wants to hear his story.
“A lot of times, it scares people to think that you have a disease that’s going to kill you,” he said. “They don’t want to hear more about that or about death. It is sad. When I went to Arkansas Children’s Hospital, there were tons of kids I would meet, kids who had really bad situations with cancer. I had to look at that and know I was doing well. Then I would find out they had passed away. It’s kind of hard. I can’t be complaining about my situation.”
Ruiz is also volunteering this summer at the We Care Foundation’s office, doing whatever needs to be done there. And yet, he still tries to spend time at Devil’s Den, the Buffalo River and the White River.
“I really enjoy fishing,” he said. “I bought my first fishing pole this year, and I pretty much haven’t missed a day this summer.”
With the first day of his next college semester approaching though, he’s ready.
“When school is in session, I’m all about school.”
For more information about Camp Dream Street and other programs sponsored by the We Care Foundation, contact the We Care Foundation office at 782-8882 or [email protected]