​Duke-NUS medical students, together with their counterparts from NUS' Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine and NTU's Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine, organised a three-day-two-nights camp for children whose family members have been diagnosed with cancer. Held in July, this was the first time since the pandemic that the students were able to offer the full camp experience to their young campers.

First conceptualised in 2009, the project, called Camp Simba, aims to address the emotional needs of children whose family members are battling cancer. Amid the challenges that these children face, Camp Simba offers them a safe haven to enjoy their childhood while developing skills such as resilience and courage. The camp also fosters a sense of community among the children, ensuring they never feel alone in their struggles.

"The camp helps these children find a community of people who are possibly going through a similar experience as them, which can help them bond, and find new friends as their current friends might not understand their situation fully," said Mr Mukul Prasad, one of the Duke-NUS camp facilitators from the Class of 2026.

Over three days, Mr Prasad and his fellow camp facilitators took 41 children, aged seven to sixteen years old, on an action-packed adventure. From engaging games like Scavenger Hunt and Heads Up charades to spirited bus karaoke sessions on the way to the Night Safari and West Coast Park, the children's enthusiasm was endless.

But the activities were not just fun for the children. Mr Nathaniel Too, another Duke-NUS camp facilitator from the Class of 2026, said: "I learnt the importance of being present in any interaction can bring more comfort than just solving their medical problems that they may face!"

For most camp facilitators, interacting with the campers was the most rewarding aspect of participating in Camp Simba. For Duke-NUS Class of 2026's Ms Chen Ying Jie, the camp's most poignant moment unfolded during its psychosocial activity. Designed to help the young campers become more emotionally resilient, the activity took inspiration from the Disney movie Inside Out.

The most heartwarming moment for her came when the camper she was paired with expressed her desire to be like Joy from the movie because of the character's persevering nature: "I am thankful for the privilege of witnessing the emotional growth of the campers in my group over the three days. Camp Simba 2023 has certainly been a memorable experience for me, having witnessed the demonstrative power of empathy, support and community in helping children overcome challenges."

"From the camp, I learnt that I should listen more to people and get a good understanding of their situation to be able to fully empathise with them," said Mr Chan Yan Zhi, a Duke-NUS camp facilitator from the Class of 2026. "Regardless of circumstances, this is something that I will definitely remember and bring with me to be a more understanding and empathetic doctor."

Reflections from Ms Chen Ying Jie (Class of 2026), head facilitator for Water 2 Group:

One of the most memorable and poignant moments from the camp was when I facilitated the psychosocial activity. Camp Simba aims to empower campers from cancer-afflicted families to become more emotionally resilient, and this activity was designed to achieve that. The programmers had developed a robust activity that provided facilitators and campers with reflective tools to recognise and explore their emotions in day-to-day activities, identify their support systems and develop strength in the face of adversity.

To bring these abstract concepts of emotional metacognition to life, the movie Inside Out was used as a reference. We discussed the film's themes, such as the 'personality islands', personified emotions, and character development before and after significant plot changes. After deliberation with the facilitators, we decided to have one-on-one discussions with the campers.

Communicating these emotional concepts in a simple yet effective manner was challenging, especially with my assigned camper, who was just eight years old. However, with the help of sticky notes provided by the programmers, I used visual aids to illustrate the things and people that were important to her and linked them to how they might shape her understanding of herself. This led us to explore the personified emotions in the movie.

The most heartwarming moment came when she expressed her desire to be like Joy from the film because of Joy's persevering nature. I affirmed her response and encouraged her to seek support from the important people she had listed in her life on the sticky note, who can guide her in her pursuit of joy in life's circumstances.

Reflecting on the camp experience during our group debrief, my fellow facilitators and I shared a deep sense of humility. Our earnest discussions about coping with difficult changes and regulating emotions created a safe space for the children to open up and share more vulnerably. We realised that modelling the way and offering a comfortable emotional support system was integral in building rapport and fostering lasting friendships with the kids that would hopefully extend far beyond the camp.

Throughout the three-day event, the camp facilitators realised the power of empathy, support and community in helping the children overcome adversities. To them, Camp Simba serves as a reminder of the importance of creating a nurturing atmosphere where children with cancer-afflicted loved ones can find joy despite facing tremendous challenges.

Dr Suzanne Goh, Associate Dean of Student Affairs, said: "When I witnessed the dedication of our medical students at Camp Simba, their tireless efforts to bring comfort, joy and support to the children facing adversity, my heart swelled with pride and hope for the future of healthcare. Engaging in projects like these not only nurtures compassion and resilience in our students but also reinforces the profound impact they can have on the lives of those they serve."

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