Cyndy Livingston cries every time she talks about KOA Care Camps. But when she visited Camp Boggy Creek, a camping retreat in Central Florida for children with life-threatening and chronic illnesses, she couldn’t stop smiling.
At the camp, one of 98 KOA Care Camps for children with cancer throughout North America, kids with cancer experience the joy of camping, of being outdoors with their peers and the camaraderie that is built around a campfire. Though Camp Boggy Creek is a medically supervised facility, there’s not a hospital in sight. Even the doctors make rounds on horseback, dressed as cowboys and cowgirls.
Cyndy and husband Howard, with the support of the Howard Livingston & the Mile Marker 24 Band, are among the largest philanthropic donors to the KOA Care Camps Trust, which exists solely to raise funds to send children with cancer, and their siblings, to specialized summer camps throughout North America — including Camp Boggy Creek.
“We went there thinking we would be crying our eyes out, and it was totally the opposite,” said Howard. “These kids are having a ball — they are on Cloud Nine. You wouldn’t know from the surface that they are ill.”
“Your enthusiasm for the cause just grows after you see the kids and what your dollars really do,” Cyndy added. Howard and Cyndy were introduced to KOA Care Camps seven years ago when Howard’s band was asked to play at a fundraiser for Care Camps at the Sugarloaf Key/Key West Florida KOA.
“The mission touched us, so we began doing 50/50 raffles to benefit Care Camps at every one of our shows,” Howard said. That first year, the band raised $700 — an amount they’ve amplified to $379,111 in total (as of June 2014).
To reach such an astounding number in such a short amount of time, the group got creative. They started selling Howard’s trademark Mile Marker 24 Band turquoise ball caps, which he pitched off the stage at the end of each show, for $100 each. They converted a 1950s Johnson outboard motor into a margarita mixing machine and started auctioning off margaritas on stage — the current record is $15,000, an amount Howard touts onstage, prodding his audience to open up their hearts and their checkbooks to exceed that donation. Even the youngest members of the family are involved. Their nine-year-old grandson auctions off drawings during Howard’s shows, because, as he explains, “Kids should get to be kids.” He even saved up his own money to buy a turquoise hat.
“We are thankful that we haven’t had to deal with childhood cancer in our family, but these kids are like your family,” Cyndy said.
“It’s an easy cause to embrace,” Howard added. “You’re not going to cure cancer — the brightest minds in the country are focused on that — but with Care Camps, kids get to be kids outside of a hospital environment. I truly believe it’s important to their recovery.”
The Mile Marker 24 Band’s infectious party grooves certainly help the philanthropic spirit. Onstage, they are genuine, engaging and ripe with feel-good vibes. Pairing their “don’t worry, be happy” personas with fundraising for a good cause is a perfect fit.
Before fronting one of Key West’s most active, philanthropic party bands, Howard was living in Chicago. There was always a guitar in the corner, but music was in the background as he lived a “pressure-cooked life.” Howard knew he wanted to play music and live in the tropics, so one day he made the leap, moving to the Florida Keys. He took up playing a guitar full time, started writing music, recorded an album, and he’s been “working” in music ever since.
“I feel so blessed to be able to do this,” Howard said. “We have so much fun. And we try to make it fun for anyone who comes to see us. I promise you’re going to walk out feeling good.”
This philanthropic spirit for KOA Care Camps has spread across Key West, and community members, as well as members of Howard’s music club, the Coconut Castaways, are now hosting events for the cause. One such event, “Meet Me in the Keys,” takes place in June and brings people from across the country to Florida for a weekend of music, food and fundraising for Care Camps. The most recent event raised $31,660.
Howard is quick to say that the fundraising success of the Mile Marker 24 Band is not about them, “it’s about people on this wonderful bandwagon doing amazing things.”
Key West artist Koz — who helps set the Care Camps fundraising goal for the Mile Marker 24 Band — wants to see the band raise $150,000 in 2015. “That is big one, but I totally believe that it’s possible,” Howard said. “Our goal last year was $100,000, and we beat that. Every year it’s gone up.”
“Because Care Camps means so much to us, it’s why we can raise so much for Care Camps,” Cyndy said. “Our biggest goal now is exposure to get people to donate, be enthusiastic and tell others.”
Cyndy admits she’s a competitive person, and in the first few years of fundraising she met Wendy Woodman, general manager of Okeechobee Florida KOA. The two struck up a friendly rivalry, fueled by Kampgrounds of America CEO Jim Rogers, who gave Cyndy her first dollar in a bet that she’d outraise Okeechobee KOA, which at the time was pulling in $30,000+ a year for the organization. With her fundraising spirit in full gear, Cyndy instituted the hat sale, the margarita machine, and continues to pioneer fundraising opportunities around Key West for the Mile Marker 24 Band.
“I can’t keep up with them,” Wendy said. “They won the contest.” Wendy continues — fundraising in full swing and hosting events year-round at Okeechobee KOA to raise money for Care Camps. Every summer, Wendy is invited to Camp Boggy Creek, and she brings a half-dozen people with her who haven’t seen the camp in action.
“It helps to spread the word and have that real-time experience,” Wendy said. “We see it happen and see the benefits from our efforts. We become the ambassadors.”
The cause is easy to get behind, and with Care Camps, donations get directly to the ones who really need it — the kids. Administration costs are covered from sources other than campground donations. “If a campground gives a hundred dollars, one hundred dollars goes to Care Camps,” said KOA Care Camps Trust Executive Director Karen McAndrew.
The Trust has grown since its inception in the early 1980s, starting with a small group of campground owners who raised $7,100 their first year. KOA Care Camps and has grown to a system-wide fundraising effort that netted $800,000 for 94 camps across North America. Sights are set on funding 100 camps in 2015, with a goal of raising $1,000,000. This year, KOA campgrounds across North America will raise funds for Care Camps during the annual Care Camps Big Weekend, which will be held Friday and Saturday, May 8-9, 2015.
“Everyone is touched by cancer in some way, but for children, it changes their whole life,” said McAndrew. “At camp, they go in as a single person and come out a team, having made lifelong friends. Many of them come back as counselors and give back.”
The organization is seeing more applications for funding than ever before, due in part to an announcement by the American Cancer Society to pull funding for camps and refocus its resources. “We’ve just hit the tip of the iceberg,” McAndrew said. “There are hundreds of cancer camps out there that need support. We are working hard this year to increase recognition and reach so that more people know about us and are donating.”
“It’s a good cause,” Woodman said. “It takes your heart. Kids shouldn’t have to go through this.”
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