This article originally appeared in the summer 2019 issue of Harker Magazine.
Every spring semester, two events bring the Harker community together to honor the lives of those afflicted with cancer as well as raise money for an organization working to improve the lives of children living with the disease. The middle school’s annual Cancer Walk and upper school’s Kicks Against Cancer – established in 2007 and 2010, respectively – have raised more than $100,000 for Camp Okizu, an organization that offers free camping activities to Northern California-based families whose children are fighting cancer.
All of the funds raised from both events are donated to the organization, currently in its 38th year of operation. “We serve more than 3,000 people each year by providing a place where they can escape the trials of pediatric cancer, find adventure and joy in a camp setting, and meet peers who truly understand what it’s like to be navigating a cancer diagnosis,” said Sarah Uldricks, Camp Okizu’s director of marketing and special events.
Located in the Sierra foothills, Camp Okizu’s facility comprises more than 500 acres of picturesque landscapes perfect for outdoor activities such as hiking, fishing, archery or simply walking and enjoying the scenery.
Harker and Camp Okizu first started collaborating in 2007, when former computer science teacher Michael Schmidt approached the organization after kicking off the Cancer Walk. Schmidt’s mother succumbed to cancer the previous year. “Since then, it has been used as a moment for our entire community to come together and celebrate the lives of those we love and those we’ve lost,” Schmidt told the Harker Quarterly (now Harker Magazine) in 2016. “It is a symbolic walk that is measured not by the miles covered, but by the love and understanding between us all.”
The Cancer Walk has since become a staple event for the Harker community, with hundreds of students, parents and faculty from all campuses participating each year by purchasing T-shirts, baked goods and other items before and at the event. With few exceptions, the sunny spring weather has proved very accommodating to the many who arrive to walk the field in honor of loved ones (or loved ones of loved ones) who have succumbed to or are currently battling cancer.
When Schmidt departed Harker in 2017, he handed the reins to middle school BEST director Lorena Martinez, who was happy to assume the role. “The responsibility is huge, but I love it,” she said. “I’m able to work with the parents, I’m able to work with student council, the teachers and the administration and we’ve all just been able to brainstorm some really cool ideas.”
After listening to suggestions from the Harker community, Martinez began adding carnival-like activities, such as games and face-painting, to help generate more funds and contribute more to the event’s festive atmosphere. It also resulted in more people eager to volunteer. “I’ve had parents for the last three years enjoy it so much that they tell me, ‘We’re going help you every year,’” she said. “What’s been really cool is seeing those parents excited to work booths again.”
In January 2010, the upper school girls soccer team began a fundraiser of its own, coinciding with a pair of upcoming home games. Students sold T-shirts and wristbands to promote the event, and the very first Kicks Against Cancer generated about $2,500 for the American Red Cross. The following year, organizers decided to donate funds to Camp Okizu.
In addition to rooting for the soccer teams, the Kicks Against Cancer event also includes halftime activities such as “Butts Up,” in which participants donate money to kick a soccer ball at a bent-over faculty member. Student groups also have put together pre-game tailgate gatherings and sold baked goods. Prior to the games, the athletes get to know the camp’s children by meeting with them at a special dinner event.
Senior Julia Amick, one of the organizers of this year’s Kicks Against Cancer, has been looking forward to being a part of the event since she began watching the games as a lower school student. “I have been going to the annual Kicks Against Cancer game ever since my brother and sister played in the games during their time in high school,” she recalled. “My sister also helped plan the event during her junior and senior years.”
Co-organizer Ria Gupta, also a senior, played in her first Kicks Against Cancer game in grade 9, and was similarly inspired to help put on the event. “After experiencing my first Kicks Against Cancer game, it became something I looked forward to every soccer season. I loved helping out in any way I could,” she said. The eagerness and enthusiasm shown by Harker students in benefiting Camp Okizu over the years has stood out to its staff. “We have noticed that the Harker students are always curious to learn, enthusiastic to help and are really connected to the importance of giving back,” said Uldricks. “The fact that every group of students continues to go above and beyond to support our campers and families shows that you have a tremendous group of future leaders in your midst.”
Amick particularly enjoys how her work with Kicks Against Cancer offers the opportunity to interact and bond with the people helped by Camp Okizu. “One part of the event I especially love is planning and attending the dinner. We set the date for the dinner and we ask all the teams (girls varsity, boys varsity and boys junior varsity) to attend and to bring stuff for the kids to play with,” she said. “It’s such an amazing part of the event because everyone gets to bond with the kids and we get to see for ourselves what a great cause we are raising money for.”
Stu Kaplan, who joined Camp Okizu as executive director in early 2019, already has noticed the dedication that sets the Harker community apart. “There really is something special about when kids are being generous in spirit and in effort for other kids,” he said, “and just understanding that there are kids who really benefit from their work and their effort is a super special thing.”