By LINDA CHION KENNEY
At The Regent in Riverview for the annual Valrico FishHawk Chamber of Commerce dinner, Sun City Center resident Larry Brooks broke into applause with the announcement that Faces of Courage is the chamber’s 2023 Charity of Choice.
Founded by Peggie Sherry in 2004, the charity holds overnight camps at Rotary’s Camp Florida in Brandon for cancer warriors, giving women and children a chance to unwind, support each other and ask questions of medical practitioners in a supportive environment.
“Supporting women and children with cancer is more than wearing a pink ribbon one month a year,” said Brooks, in reference to Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, in an interview after the Jan. 27 VFCC dinner. “Faces of Courage is a very worthwhile cause. I’ve been volunteering long enough to see the positive impact it has on women and child campers.”
Adventure programs, such as taking a 20-mile canoe trip down the Suwanee River, are offered. Sherry said the nonprofit this year will offer men’s outings as well, including for zip-lining and deep-sea fishing.
Annually in November, the Davis Island Yacht Club, with the Crewe of Bobbie C. Davis, sponsors a “Sunset Sail Away From Cancer,” which last year involved members donating 17 yachts to accommodate 200 Faces of Courage survivors and their guests. “The captains thanked us because it was such a rewarding experience for them,” Sherry added. “And it was priceless for our cancer survivors, many of whom had never been on a boat.”
Having battled cancer herself, Sherry knows the importance of bonding with people waged in all stages of the cancer fight, from diagnosis to treatment to remission. Two months after her double mastectomy and with funds from her parents’ inheritance, Sherry, in 2004, launched Faces of Courage, which by her estimates has served more than 12,000 women and children.
“There’s a great deal of isolation when you’re diagnosed with cancer and especially with children,” Sherry said. “People don’t understand it. They’re afraid of it. They don’t know how to be around you when you have cancer.”
Not so at Faces of Courage camps, where cancer warriors share their fears, feelings, scars, setbacks and successes as they forge bonds that last a lifetime.
“When you’re with people who have the same scars, who are bald, who are fighting for their lives, a bond forms that never breaks,” Sherry said. “It’s important for cancer patients who are years out to become the shining light for those who are newly diagnosed.”
Learning that a cancer diagnosis is not a death sentence is key, Sherry said, recounting the story of one particularly disgruntled camper.
“She was one of the worst campers we’ve ever had,” Sherry said. Diagnosed with a very treatable Stage 1 cancer, Sherry invited the woman to look around her, at warriors facing a Stage 4 diagnosis, but it made no difference. “She had just been diagnosed, and she didn’t think she could get through it,” Sherry said. “She was just so angry.”
Sherry said the woman, invited to camp, refused to go. Under the pretense of driving her to the mall, her husband instead dropped the woman off at Rotary’s Camp Florida with a suitcase he had secretly packed.
“He took her purse, phone and credit card and put the suitcase out and left her,” Sherry said. “She stayed up all night with the women in her cabin, who embraced her, bonded and talked her through her fears and what to expect.”
The woman later called Sherry to report just how crucial the camp was to saving her life. “She said when she got in the car to go home, she hugged her husband and thanked him,” Sherry said. “Later, she gave him the gun and the letter she had written the day before her husband was set to go on a business trip. She was going to kill herself because she didn’t think she could get through cancer. But being in the camp around other women, she realized her cancer was treatable, she could get through it and people were there to support her.”
Stories like these encourage people like Brooks to promote nonprofits that support people through life’s darkest hours. He carries Faces of Courage business cards to share as needed.
“It’s something that everybody should be in tune with because every man, woman and child knows someone who has been impacted by cancer, directly or indirectly,” said Brooks, who works tirelessly in the kitchen at overnight camps to prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“The whole thing to me is inspirational,” Brooks said. “You have women and children at camp having a great time, laughing and joking. If you talk to the other volunteers, they’ll tell you the same thing. They look forward to the camp just as much as the people attending. It’s a rewarding experience all around.”
One particular story stands out for Brooks, about a woman who asked her son if he wanted “to go to Disney or go to camp,” Brooks said. “The boy said, ‘I want to go to camp, because there everybody won’t stare at me.’ ”
Scheduled this year for May 12 and August 18, respectively, are camps for women of color and for all women. The Santa’s Workshop Camp for children is held in December. Visit www.facesofcourage.org for more information and to download for free “Breast Cancer Tips and Tricks From Two Survivors,” by Peggie Sherry and Phyllis Mikolatis. Call 813-948-7478 or email firstname.lastname@example.org/. Rotary’s Camp Florida is in Brandon at 1915 Camp Florida Road.