Alumnus Christopher Roos gives cancer patients and their families a rest from treatment with Camp Keepsake.
By Sarah Fisher
Twelve years ago, Christopher Roos (MA ’93, EdD ’02) sat at the bedside of his close friend Jodi as she slipped in and out of coherency during the final days of a hard-fought battle with cancer. During months of exhaustive, expensive treatments, Jodi had no chance to rest with her friends and family while she was still conscious enough to enjoy it. The injustice plagued him.
As the founder and developer of a number of successful business startups, Roos realized he had the tools to make that meaningful opportunity possible for others. He established the Cancer Hope Foundation, with the mission to enhance the lives of people affected by the disease. The main focus of the foundation is its Camp Keepsake program, which offers a weekend retreat for patients, family, and friends.
“A lot of people dealing with cancer are financially strained by paying for treatments, prescriptions, or travel to hospitals, and they need to always be near to medical facilities,” Roos notes. “Some haven’t been able to take a trip in years.”
In the 12 years since Roos founded the program, hundreds of families have had the experience he knew that Jodi would have relished: support, spa treatments, and traditional camping activities, all with the security of knowing that the rented campsite in Calabasas, California, has plenty of medical facilities nearby.
A special feature of Camp Keepsake is its focus on the community surrounding the patients and the acknowledgment that cancer is exhausting and emotional for family and friends. Each patient is allowed up to five guests, at no cost, so that everyone who is immediately affected by the cancer gets a respite for one weekend. “Also, some friends or family live out of area and can’t be there all the time, so this gives them a special weekend together,” Roos adds.
“I remember one camper who was dealing with a terminal brain tumor, who came when we had an island theme with a reggae band and a limbo contest,” Roos recalls. “He won the contest. But the biggest thing for him, the thing he was so appreciative of, was that his family had made new friends. He realized he wasn’t going to make it, so it was important to him that his family had that ongoing support after he was gone.”
Roos combined his background as a psychology graduate—with a bachelor’s degree from California State University, Northridge, and a master’s from the Pepperdine Graduate School of Education and Psychology—with his head for business when he founded the Cancer Hope Foundation. He believes in the idea that strong community support works wonders for recovery or grief, and as president of the commercial fastener distributor Dal/Lyn International, Inc., he has the business acumen to ensure the camp operates at its best for the good of its campers.
“Running a camp has been compared to running a small city,” Roos admits. “And in bringing together strangers, volunteers, and people on medication who are dealing with serious life and death issues, emotions are always all over the place. Thankfully, I have an amazing team of directors, and our staff is 100 percent volunteer.”
Losing Jodi also spurred Roos on to help make cancer more bearable for its sufferers in other ways. In 1998 he joined the American Cancer Society, where he helped out as, among other things, a team-building specialist, director of a children’s camp, and the team captain coordinator for the inaugural Relay for Life event in Newbury Park, California. His work with the society earned him an American Cancer Society Award for Distinguished Service. He is also a consultant for Camp Challenge in Sacramento, California, which models itself after Camp Keepsake, as well as a consultant for Project Kindle, helping with the purchase and development of a medical, hospitality, and camping facility.
“I always wanted to help people, and I just try to share my passion whenever people hear me speak,” Roos says of his tireless work. “Also, I make sure I back up what I say—if people can see me working my tail off then they might want to do something similar. I try to tell my volunteers that helping others is also a gift to yourself because you see such rewards in making people smile.”
The campers smile when they arrive, anticipating a relaxing weekend of adventure. They smile as they observe Roos and his team of volunteers working hard and sacrificing their own leisure time to host Camp Keepsake. And they smile at the end, as they say goodbye to their new extended community of friends. That is when Roos is reminded that he is doing something truly special.
“People arrive on Friday as strangers. By Saturday, they are friends. And when they leave on Sunday, they are family,” he says. “When we talk about taking a break away from daily life stresses, people think it will be depressing. But really, this is a celebration of life.”