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Youngsters with cancer use recycled instruments at Gilda's camp

| Monday, July 12, 2010

Four-year-old Hamilton Grant bobbed his head to a silent beat, ready to strum his guitar made from a recycled maple syrup container.

"One, two, three, hit it!" he called out, and the music began.

Hamilton was one of 28 kids experimenting with recycled instruments at the Gilda's Club summer camp in the Strip District last week. Gilda's Club -- a national nonprofit named for the late comedienne Gilda Radner, provides support for cancer patients like Hamilton, who has leukemia, and their friends and relatives.

"If we didn't have it to come to, he'd be at 4 years old, stuck in the house in the summer," Hamilton's mother, Meiko Grant, 40, of South Fayette, said.

The camp — which began June 30 and continues for another four weeks — provides stress relief for children and parents, said Kathleen Petulla, youth program manager at Gilda's Club Western Pennsylvania.

"Kids are here and having a good time and being kids when, maybe other times, they're so stressed about whatever is going on in the home related to cancer or not," Petulla said. "It's kind of nice for the whole family to have the opportunity to just have some fun."

Children may lack the insight to know they are stressed, but some complain of abdominal pain, nausea or other symptoms when stress is affecting them, said Dr. Peter Shaw, a pediatric hematologist and oncologist at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.

"Focusing their energy on creative endeavors like art projects is very positive," Shaw said. "It decreases stress just by distracting them."

The music sessions — which are new this year — are a laid-back way for kids to blow off some steam, Petulla said.

"It's very relaxed," she said. "They're not necessarily learning how to play each instrument, but more just kind of experimenting."

Jake Hurley, 10, of Erie, said he "dazzled" at the camp last week.

"It was pretty cool to make your own song," Jake said. "You could express yourself with anything that you want to with music."

The camp's music sessions are led by volunteers from Project 53, a donation-based resource center in Polish Hill that works to bring music into people's lives. Project 53 volunteers Luke Sanford, 23, of Polish Hill and Elaina O'Brien, 25, of Garfield brought hand drums, an electric organ, two ukuleles, an accordion, guitars and a water bottle filled with rice to the camp.

"Music itself is a really powerful and life-changing experience," Sanford said. "Thus far it hasn't had anything to do with the stress of their family life or their personal situation."

Now that school is out, O'Brien said campers enjoy making noise.

"A lot of times, they'll look really bashful, you know. They'll make a really loud noise and look at you like, 'Are you going to say -- be quiet?' And I'm like, 'no, be louder,' " O'Brien said.

"Make as much noise as you want."

Five campers have cancer, and the others have relatives or friends who have cancer or died from it, Petulla said.

"It's a good thing to get away from all the hospital stuff," said Hurley, whose older sister was diagnosed with leukemia in November. "It's just fun to be here."

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