​At the beginning of the year, a group of students from Duke-NUS Medical School, the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine (LKCMedicine) and NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine came together, determined to bring back Camp Simba, an annual camp for children from cancer-afflicted families that had been suspended for two years because of the pandemic.

Conceptualised as a joint project in 2009 by students from Duke-NUS and NUS Medicine, Camp Simba offers a safe emotional support system, enabling children to have fun while forging lifelong friendships.

In 2020, students from LKCMedicine joined their peers from the two founding schools to organise the camp, making it the first time that all three medical schools were involved. But the COVID-19 pandemic forced the students to put the camp on hold due to safety restrictions.

Things finally started to looking up in January 2022 and the students returned to the drawing board. Besides the annual camp, the student organisers added three reunion camps to their plans.

“Thankfully, as the camp approached, restrictions continued to ease and we were given the green light to go ahead,” said Ms Kelly Chang, NUS Camp Simba project director.

Well aware that COVID restrictions remained fluid, the student organisers drew up not one but three plans, catering for varying levels of potential COVID-19 regulations. On top of that, they also took extra care to ensure that each activity would be conducted safely.

“We couldn’t plan for overnight stays since we would have to take our masks off when sleeping, which might put our campers and medically vulnerable members of their family at risk. But we were still able to retain other vital elements of the camp, like the station games and psychosocial activities, while adding in new elements such as the tie dye workshop,” said Ms Meenakshi Siddharthan, Duke-NUS Camp Simba project director and Year Two MD student.

When the big day finally arrived, the room over in the NUS Medicine building buzzed with excitement as both 50 student facilitators and 30 campers aged between seven and 16 opened up to one another with the help of a few icebreaker games.

“As the kids started streaming in one by one, we scrambled to make sure that they were comfortable and not startled by us—who were all older students. At first, they looked uneasy, but as the programmes began, everything changed,” recalled Ms Raksha Aiyappan, LKCMedicine Camp Simba project director.

And during the two days of the camp, there were bursts of boisterous fun as well as quiet moments when the campers focused on learning new skills, such as during the tie-dye workshop.

The campers and student facilitators’ bonds that were forged on the first day provided a good foundation for the psychosocial activity on Day Two of the camp. During this activity, the facilitators guided the children on introspecting and opening up about their experiences. The campers were also divided into two groups based on their age, with children above the age of seven in one group and those aged between 12 to 16 in another.

While the group with older children shared deep and intense conversations that allowed them to get to know each other on a deeper level, facilitators working with the younger campers had some interesting conversations too.

“Chatting with the younger campers showed us that even though children may appear unbothered, they are often very complicated beneath the surface, especially when they come from such difficult emotional circumstances,” reflected Ms Meenakshi. 

Reflecting on the bonding, joy and friendship that Camp Simba offers, Ms Chang, who led this year’s camp, shared a more personal story as this year’s camp drew to a close: She had been a camper from 2015 to 2017 and returned later in 2019 as a Simba Sibling—an alumnus of the event—to help facilitate the camp.

“I hope to inspire more campers to return to the camp in the future to give back to the wonderful Camp Simba community,” said Ms Chang.

“Eventually, we hope to build a network of camp alumni, known as ‘Simba Siblings’ and a community in which participants are able to draw support and strength from one another,” added Ms Aiyappan.