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GOLD CREEK – Camp Mak-A-Dream celebrated its 20th birthday in style, hosting a public party at its campus on Sunday – and accepting a very special gift in the form of a donation for more than $41,500. 

Chad Parrish and Gary Bakke from Garden City Rods and Customs attended the open house to present the organization with the check. The money for the gift was raised by a group of hot rod enthusiasts from western Montana. Parrish said the main fundraiser involved selling raffle tickets to give away a 1967 Plymouth Barracuda that had been restored by a group of car clubs in the region, and he was on hand to present the keys to the winner, Julie James of Dillon.

James said when she was first called and told she had won, she considered letting Camp Mak-A-Dream keep the vehicle to give away again, but after some thinking, decided to let the gift help two organizations.

“A car like this is a waste on someone like me," she said. "I’m going to donate it to the YMCA to be raffled off."

Laura Bianco Hanna, executive director of Camp Mak-A-Dream, said the donation to her organization will more than cover the sponsorship for an entire weeklong camp, and is part of Camp Mak-A-Dream’s plans looking towards the future.

“Our next big goal is adding more programs and more five-day retreats to expand our services,” she said.

What started as a single camp for 46 kids in 1995 has grown, with more than 500 people scheduled to come out to Camp Mak-A-Dream this year to attend one of its 11 camps and retreats.

Bianco Hanna said that since the organization began, it’s served more than 6,000 people from 49 states and six other countries with its cost-free, medically supervised programs for children and young adults with cancer.

“They come here and realize they’re not alone,” she said. "They meet other people going through what they are going through, who have lost their hair or a limb from their treatment, and build that support network."

The organization has also expanded its original mission to include programs for adults, such as all-women camps, and camps for the siblings of cancer patients.

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“The collateral damage that cancer has on families is unbelievable,” Bianco Hanna said.

She said Camp Mak-A-Dream is the only organization in the county that has programs specifically for child brain cancer survivors like 8-year-old Sam Hutchinson.

Hutchinson was diagnosed with a medulloblastoma tumor when he was 5 years old. His father Jay said that what had started with the boy not feeling well at a Fourth of July party led to a CT scan in Helena and then a flight down to Salt Lake City.

“When I had cancer, I had a hard time taking all of the meds that I was on,” Sam Hutchinson said, pointing at his chest where he still has a scar from the port that was installed for his treatments.

In 2012, Hutchinson had surgery to remove the tumor and a week ago, an MRI showed no evidence of disease. He said he came to one of the programs at Camp Mak-A-Dream earlier in the summer. Even though he had the most fun whizzing down the zipline, he said that wasn’t the best part of the camp.

“I liked just getting to spend time with the other kids in my cabin,” Hutchinson said.

On Sunday, the public was invited to try all the amenities Camp Mak-A-Dream has to offer, including horseback riding, a climbing wall and ropes course, the soccer field and basketball court, and a building dedicated to making artwork.

In June, Camp Mak-A-Dream finished construction on its new 6,700-square-foot Wellness Center, designed by Missoula firm OZ Architects. The building fills a very special need, helping to teach life skills to cancer survivors who are ready to leave home and head off to college and careers.

Bianco Hanna said when many of these kids are growing up as cancer patients, they and their families are so focused on what she calls “survival mode” that they oftentimes miss out on learning important everyday tasks and interpersonal skills. Among other features, the center includes a training kitchen and educational space to conduct workshops in everything from nutrition to career counseling.

“It’s about empowering them for life after cancer,” Bianco Hanna said.

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