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Local girl battles cancer, fire and Miami Marathon

by Gerri Miller

February 12, 2014 | 4:40 pm

From left: Penina Wolff and Sienna Wolfe and at the Miami Half Marathon. Photo by Benji Weintraub

From left: Penina Wolff and Sienna Wolfe and at the Miami Half Marathon. Photo by Benji Weintraub

She may only be 10 years old, but Sienna Wolfe’s narrow escape from a bunkhouse fire during sleep-away camp last summer wasn’t the first time she’s eluded death: The Beverly Hills girl is also a cancer survivor.

Diagnosed when she was 6 with fibromyxoid sarcoma, a soft-tissue cancer — she’s now in remission — Sienna was among those endangered by an early morning fire at Camp Simcha, a camp in the Catskill Mountains for children with cancer and other serious diseases. 

Earlier this month, she joined another camper and 12 counselors to raise money for rebuilding the camp by participating in the Miami Half Marathon as part of Team Lifeline. Pushed in a wheelchair in the Feb. 2 race by her counselor, Penina Wolff, Sienna crossed the finish line in 3 hours and 13 minutes.

“She’s just a ray of sunshine,” said Wolff, who flew in from New York. “She’s super fun and always looks on the bright side.” 

Each team member in the Miami race had to raise $3,600; this year, the Team Lifeline program aims to raise $2 million for rebuilding and refurbishing the camp, as well as scholarships. 

Sienna, who lives with her mother, Michelle Kalt, and two older brothers in Beverly Hills, attends Beverly Vista School and studies Hebrew at Temple Emanuel. She said she was “scared and sad” when she was diagnosed with cancer, but that some good came of it, too. 

“I learned to appreciate things and think good thoughts,” she said.

For the past three years. Sienna has attended Camp Simcha, a kosher, tuition-free camp accommodating 430 campers. It holds sessions for young cancer patients and, as Camp Simcha Special, hosts those with chronic conditions, such as cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis and rare genetic diseases. It is operated by the organization Chai Lifeline as one of its many services for families dealing with pediatric illness.

Sienna said she loved the unique, nurturing experience, explaining that for the two weeks she’s there, “I feel like I’m not alone and not the only one.”

That comforting security was shattered last year in the predawn hours of an August Shabbat morning, three days before the end of camp. Wolff, who has worked at Camp Simcha for six years and as division head for the last three, remembers being awakened at 4:30 a.m. by another counselor who said the bunk next door was on fire. 

“I ran to see if everyone got out and saw a counselor carrying a wheelchair-bound camper out, against a background of flames. We counted and saw that everyone was out. Everything went as planned,” she said, explaining that they’d practiced fire drills, the fire department came quickly and no one was injured.

“But we were in shock. The bunk was destroyed.” Aside from someone’s keys, those campers and staff members “lost everything.”

Melanie Kwestel, Chai Lifeline’s director of communications, said the fire is believed to have been electrical in nature.

“It was a traumatic experience for everyone,” she said, adding that as cancer survivors, the children coped better than their counselors. 

“These kids really have been through hell. Pediatric cancer treatment is very painful, and these girls were in or had been through treatment and they had faced down death. Even though it was not a pleasant experience, they were able to take it in stride.”

The entire camp rallied around the affected campers, Kwestel recalled. 

“The other girls immediately came forward and gave them clothing, stuffed animals. These kids have some sort of object they take with them when they go through cancer treatment, such as a blanket or stuffed animal, something that comforts them,” she explained. “These kids lost that in the fire, and other kids said ‘Here, take mine.’ It was such amazing compassion.”

The campers wore pajamas all day that Shabbat, in solidarity with those who’d lost everything but their sleepwear, Wolff said. She recalled a speech Sienna gave to the camp assembly that Friday night about positive thinking and how she retained that attitude, along with her sense of humor, after the devastating fire. 

“We were all sitting there afterward, and she said, ‘Tragic times, Penina. Tragic times,’ and everyone laughed. She just has that way about her,” Wolff said. “She said, ‘We’re all alive. We all survived.’ ”

And they all did it together, which is one reason participants in the Miami race decided to rally as a group. Sienna, who needed a wheelchair for the half marathon because she tires easily, thanked her fellow racers and gave them medals at the finish line. 

She said she’s looking forward to returning to Camp Simcha this summer, and even though she wants to become an actress someday, she has a more immediate goal. 

“I want to work at camp as a counselor,” Sienna said. “I understand what they’ve been through.”

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