Alyson Fox is the director of Global Partnership at the SeriousFun Children’s Network, an organization founded in 1988 by actor Paul Newman.
Having served more than 440,000 children who are suffering form illnesses in more than 50 countries, the program has 30 initiatives worldwide—including 14 full-member camps, 13 Global Partnership Programs, and three new camps in development.
Before we launch into a discussion about the program, here’s some information about this Truly Amazing Woman.
Fox has been with SeriousFun for about nine years, first as part of the New Camp Development team, supporting camp founders from their first inspiration of building a camp all the way to opening their doors for their first campers. In 2008, she transitioned to the new Global Partnership Program, building it from a pilot of three camp partnerships to a still-growing network of 13 camps. She became director of the Global Partnership Program in November 2012.
Previously, she worked at Brown University in the Health Services Department, collaborating with the medical staff and campus life teams to teach, train, and counsel Brown students about a wide variety of health issues.
Be Inkandescent: SeriousFun has a strong program here in the United States, but it’s not always easy to take something global. Tell us about the initiative.
Alyson Fox: Paul Newman first had the idea to create an international version of his US camps when he went on a safari in Africa and saw that kids there needed what he was doing in the US. So our team worked with local companies to train their cooks, housekeepers, and safari guides to deliver the SeriousFun camp program. Initially, we focused on working with children who were infected with HIV or who had family members that had been affected by the HIV and AIDS crisis.
Over time, the idea grew legs and what started off in the countries of Namibia, Botswana, and Malawi has grown into what is now our Global Partnership Program in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. In each country, we take the SeriousFun approach of working with children, meaning we meet them where they’re at, and we adapt our activities to meet their needs. This way, no matter what illness or side effects they have—be it an amputated limb or lethargy from the side effects of medication—our teams plan and design a program that enables them to have an incredible experience.
Be Inkandescent: Did you have the opportunity to work directly with Paul Newman?
Alyson Fox: I feel very fortunate that I did meet him. One time in particular was at camp, and as anyone will tell you, that was one of his favorite places to be. You’d walk into the dining hall and look around, and out of the corner of your eye you’d see Paul at a table surrounded by campers. He was almost disguised, because he looked like one of the campers. It was so gratifying to see the impact that such a simple act of caring for children with serious illnesses can have on those children and their families.
Be Inkandescent: What drew you to this organization?
Alyson Fox: A combination of things. You mentioned my experience at Brown University, and education, and having grown up going to many different camps. I have a strong belief that camp is a place where kids can reinvent themselves, and they can leave the illness at the door. Or, if they were an unpopular kid at school, they can leave that at the door and reinvent themselves at camp because they’re surrounded by adults whose jobs is to support them, inspire them, and motivate them.
In the case of SeriousFun camps, they get to be with children who are just like them, and they don’t have to worry about the discrimination or the stigma or the fear of the medical condition.
It doesn’t matter anymore. You see the kids after the first day. Children with cancer who have lost their hair during chemo treatments might come with their wigs on. By the end of the first or second day, the wigs are off and they are painting their heads with face paint and jumping into the camp spirit, really feeling comfortable being themselves.
Be Inkandescent: How wonderful! Is this experience different around the world?
Alyson Fox: I think that’s one of the things that surprised me. While every culture is different, it’s the same process when a child arrives closed off, scared, and uncertain. They ask: Who are these crazy dressed-up people that are welcoming me? And then by day two—just like kids in the US—they start to integrate into their camp family groups. Within the week, you see them open up. By the end of the week, they don’t want to leave because they’ve had such an incredible time, and have been loved in ways they likely haven’t been outside of camp.
Be Inkandescent: Are the logistics complicated when you work internationally?
Alyson Fox:* Logistics are probably one of the most challenging things we deal with. We have an incredible team of program managers here at our Westport, CT, headquarters. Each manager is assigned to a camp that they work with year-round. So they get to know the local leadership team and they work hand and hand.
The local partners are NGOs that are already serving this needy population of children in some capacity—such as a clinic, another youth program, or an after- school program. And they are the experts with these kids, in terms of culture and logistics. We can guide them in the kinds of things that we need, be it a certain facility that we want to use, transportation, or forms that need to be filled out. It’s all of those behind-the-scenes things that must happen for the program to work. They are trained and mentored by us, of course, and it doesn’t take long for them to become part of the SeriousFun Network—one that is truly locally led.
Be Inkandescent: Where are all of the international camps located?
Alyson Fox: The SeriousFun camps are in the US, Europe, Israel, Japan, and South Africa, and these camps are bricks-and-mortar facilities that are open all year.
To make this happen, we partner with NGOs and rent facilities, such as a boarding school or university when it’s not in session. We use rented facilities so that we can keep the cost down and therefore serve even more children in the area.
Be Inkandescent: How do you find the kids overseas who want to participate?
Alyson Fox: That is the responsibility of our partners. Here again, we coach them on the criteria for campers. For example, in the camps that serve HIV campers, one of the criteria is that they know their HIV status—that’s because camp is a place where they can talk about what it’s like to be HIV-positive.
For many of these kids, being at our camp might be the first place that they could open up and talk about taking their meds or asking questions about their disease and their future. We hear them ask:
- Can I grow up and get married and have children? And the answer is yes.
- Can I go to school and have a job? And again, the answer is yes.
Be Inkandescent: What do you hope the kids will take away from this experience?
Alyson Fox: First, I hope that they’ve made a connection to other kids, because their home life might not be a supportive environment. It might be an orphanage, it might be a child-headed household—because so many kids with HIV have lost their caregivers to this or other illnesses. So creating a network of peers like them is critical so that they realize they aren’t alone.
Second, we hope to create a network that extends to our partner organizations. By forging strong connections with clinics, youth programs, and other organizations, if they have a special need or an emergency happens, they know more adults that they can go to for help.
Thirdly, for our programs with children with HIV, we look at adherence. As I said earlier, this might be the first time that they’ve ever seen another child take these meds. Seeing all these kids taking meds normalizes their situation and takes away the stigma and discrimination.
We often here from caregivers—aunties or grandmothers or the neighbors who are taking care of the kids—“What did you do to my child? They’re teaching me how to take my meds!” You have this ripple effect of education and awareness and positive support, which extends well beyond the child who came to camp for five days. SeriousFun camps impact their family unit, their orphanage, and their schools.
Want to learn more? Don’t miss our podcast interview with Alyson Fox. Click here to listen to this episode on the Inkandescent Radio Network.
Find out how you can get involved with the SeriousFun Children’s Network at www.seriousfunnetwork.org.