Welcome to Sunday Stories, our new series where we feature people in our community that we admire. September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, and we have partnered with Camp Ronald McDonald For Good Times to support their efforts to support the children and families that cancer has impacted. Our first installment features Fatima Djelmane Rodriguez, Executive Director, and Jasmin Joya, Family Relations and Recruitment Manager for Camp Ronald McDonald for Good Times.
Jasmin Joya, Family Relations & Recruitment Manager
Q: Jasmin, tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? How long have you lived in L.A.?
A: I’m an L.A. native and grew up in Highland Park, starting at the age of 5. I haven’t bumped into Billie Eilish yet (HLP is her hometown!) BUT I have probably eaten at the same restaurants she has, so there’s that! I’m a proud Salvadoran and love to learn about my roots through my mother’s stories. Also, I think this is a perfect moment to say that if you haven’t tried pupusas or horchata, you must! I graduated from UCR with a degree in Sociology/Business Administration and now work in the non-profit sector.I just had my 6 year anniversary working with Camp!
Q: Jasmin, you were an attendee yourself at CAMP and a childhood cancer survivor. What has your experience been like, beginning your journey to Camp as a camper to now working for Camp to help so many children have the same life-changing experience that you had?
A: Oh wow, if I could describe it in almost one word I’d say ever-growing. So much of me has changed, developed, and improved throughout the years. I started at Camp at just 13 years-old and I’m now 27, so there’s definitely been quite some learning. First off, I started as a teen and during that time of life, most people are focused on image, dealing with new changes, and being confused all at the same time. Shoot, the reason I even took so long to decide to go to Camp was because I at least wanted my hair to grow back fully to look normal when I did go.
I was very shy and timid, but somehow was inspired to get up on stage to sing a John Legend song with my cabin mates in front of the ENTIRE Camp-who am I?! It was the people and Camp culture that made me feel that I could do absolutely anything and everything. They encouraged me, lifted me up, and sparked such joy in my life within a couple days! It was bittersweet to realize that I only had four summers left, but found comfort in the hopes of returning as a counselor. I knew I wanted to inspire, motivate, remind campers of what they are capable of, and pour such unconditional love just like my counselors did with me.
I returned as a counselor in 2015 shortly after interning with Camp for two summers. I found myself hugging the same counselors who had welcomed me as a camper with such open arms and I felt a new sense of purpose. After being a cabin counselor to some inspiring young girls, my fire and passion for our mission was amplified. They left such an imprint on my life, truly. I’ll never forget the moment when one of my girls came up to me and was worried that her hair would not cover her entire eye during the dance. She had just had surgery. I reminded her that she looked gorgeous that night and expressed how proud I was of her for wanting to go to the dance in the first place. The moment she stepped on the dance floor, she tied her hair up and smiled at me confidently from a distance. I almost cried and took a mental picture to capture such a special moment. I was excited to begin my new role with Camp to ensure that every camper and family member could have a moment like she did, even if it was for a second. It became super important to me that families knew we were there to support them every step of the way. All that I’ve learned has changed and shaped who I want to be and the impact I would like to leave in this world. Our community is everything to me and I’m so grateful.
Q: Jasmin, did you decide to join Camp solely because of your experience as a camper?
A: Definitely not, but it has played a key role in shaping who I am today. As I mentioned earlier, I studied business in college and all that was on my mind after graduation was working for a Fortune 500 company - Amazon, Apple, Coca- Cola, UPS, you name it! Never in a million years did I think I would work for the place that gave me so much, let alone that I would be interviewed by the Program Director who had known me since I was 13! I get chills just thinking about it. After my internship with Camp my entire perspective changed. I think it comes down to that saying “you’re exactly where you need to be.” It’s very fitting and makes complete sense now.
Q: What piece of advice would you give to a camper going through what you experienced or to a family member/friends with someone close to them battling cancer?
A: Never feel that you are alone or feel guilty about what you are enduring. Ever. You are not alone. There’s an army of people ready to support you and pour into you because you deserve it.
Q: What is about Camp that is so healing for patients, siblings and parents?
A: It’s just a really safe space for everyone. A place where there’s openness, respect, understanding, fun, pure genuine connections, and the feeling of home all in one. Where vulnerability is free to roam and the sky is the limit. It’s truly one-of-a-kind
Fatima Djelmane Rodriguez, Executive Director
Q: What inspired you to join this organization? You have been in non-profit work for 16 years. Tell us more about that?
A: I was recruited to join Camp Ronald McDonald for Good Times as the lead fundraiser by my predecessor after having worked at Proyecto Pastoral for nearly eight years. I was drawn to the mission of serving children with cancer and their families (who can’t get around that mission!?), but I honestly saw myself transitioning quickly to work for a more social justice-focused organization like in my previous role. I wasn’t familiar with recreational camping, so it was hard for me to connect at first with Camp’s impact—it was just so foreign to me. That all changed after my first visit to Campamento Familiar/Family Camp (our Spanish language Family Camp for children with cancer ages 0-8 and their families). There’s a time during Family Camp when the kids go off with their volunteer counselors and parents have an opportunity to sit in a circle during a parent meeting to just talk and connect. I had a lump in my throat the whole time listening to the parents’ stories of dealing with things like marital struggles, navigating parenting, and feeling overwhelmed by the medical system. One family even shared that they were homeless and living out of their car. I realized then that cancer impacts families no matter their readiness to grapple with such a devastating disease and is often compounded with challenges and heartache they’re already carrying. I saw then just how important Camp is to the children and families we serve. It’s an opportunity to reclaim normalcy, to be in a natural environment away from the hospital and the stresses of daily life, and to be with other children and families who are going through the same journey. It’s a chance to heal places in the mind, body, and spirit that medical treatments can’t. Eight years later, I’mnow the Executive Director and I’m so deeply passionate about our impact.I’m also grateful for our partnership with the ODELLS and the way it’s helping to amplify our message.
Q: Do you have any children yourself? How has it been navigating the COVID-19 pandemic with your daughters while also balancing work?
A: Yes, I have two sweet, inquisitive and rambunctious little girls, Alejandra (age 9) and Emma (age 5). Oh man, balancing home schooling and work has been a breeze! Hahahahaha, just kidding. Honestly, it’s a day-by-day situation. Thankfully, my husband Lucio is an amazing partner and father, so we tag-team. Also, my oldest daughter Ale is pretty independent. We recently added a massive chalk board to our kitchen wall so that we can keep track of our weeklyZoom call schedule, which has been so helpful. I’m usually in charge of mornings, getting the girls up and going and he takes over in the afternoon, helping Emma with her lessons. Another key thing has been giving each other space for self-care. I’ve become obsessed with the Peloton app and have been using it for strength training, cycling rides, guided outdoor running, yoga and meditation. I also participate in my and Laura’s bestie Espie’s I AM morning meditations on Instagram (@i_am_experience) to help me get centered. I feel like all of those things, plus working with the best team at Camp, have helped me navigate this challenging time.
Q: Fatima, you and Laura O’Dell have been lifelong friends. What has it been like to watch The ODELLS grow into the company it is today?
A: Oh goodness, it’s been such a source of pride to witness Laura and Jason grow their business. It feels like yesterday that Laura and I would go on runs before play practice in high school and talk about what our adult lives might be like. Would we be married? Would we have kids? What would our professions be? We were only teenagers at the time, but even then, Laura had a knack for fashion—she even designed her own show-stopping prom dress! Once we hit our mid-twenties, our friends and I were helping Laura sew petals on the vintage-inspired t-shirts that got her started. What I’ve been most impressed by is how resilient Laura and Jason are. They have survived two major recessions, and they’ve done so with such grace and with the interests of their employees always at the forefront of their minds. They’re two of the most kind-hearted, loving and generous people I know and I’m so fortunate to call them my friends. I consider them part of my chosen family.
Q: COVID-19 has obviously affected Camp and the way it is typically run. How has it been to shift your approach to the programming and create a virtual experience for the kids?
A (Jasmin): It has been the most humbling experience. Our team has done such an incredible job with pivoting and creating such an innovative experience. We really wanted to bring Camp “down the mountain” and into their homes because we believe that a summer without Camp would be unacceptable. We filled boxes with activities supplies and special Camp “swag” items as well as launched over 70 activity sessions via Zoom - from cooking to arts & crafts and more! It was such a treat to see our campers on the other side of the screen and feel as if we were up at Camp. Though it was challenging, we knew we had to show up for them. Our campers and families ARE the magic of Camp!
A (Fatima): When COVID-19 first hit we were, like most folks, totally shell-shocked. Questions like “What’s happening? How long is this going to last? Are we in a Sci-Fi movie?” came to all of our minds. That lasted for a split second, and then we quickly sprang into action. We’re fortunate to have a team of devoted volunteers who come up for a full week of Camp summer after summer, fueled by their love for our campers. This past spring, we quickly called on them to create video content like games, camp songs, and activities like arts & crafts that we then shared with children ages 0-8 and their families so they could experience our new Family Camp at Home programming. It was while brainstorming how we could take connecting with our campers ages 9 to high school age up a notch for Summer Camp that the idea of Camp-in-a-Box was born. We created 500 boxes filled with all of the Camp swag, goodies and supplies our campers would need for the activities that we then provided online throughout the entire month of July. Thanks to nearly 100 volunteers, we hosted 45 live activities over Zoom with 220 campers. It was a great success! Our campers said that though they missed being up at Camp, Camp at Home was the next best way to feel the love of their counselors and fellow campers, though through their computer screens. We will be hosting our next round of Family Camp at Home in October (with Camp-in-a-Box included, and in both English and Spanish)..
Q: What has been your favorite distraction or fun activity during quarantine?
A (Jasmin): Online shopping! I’m totally kidding….although I’m pretty sure the Amazon and UPS driver knows my house by now -ha! I would say cooking (thank you for your cookbooks, Joanna Gaines and Laura Vitale), dancing it out with my two sisters, surprise FaceTimes with friends and playing guitar after many years.
A (Fatima): Cooking (I make a mean plate of Huevos Rancheros), playing and dancing with my girls, watching cooking shows with my husband, going on walks/working out, and listening to music.
Q: What is your favorite fall must-have item in your closet?
A (Jasmin): Hmmm…. in L.A., we don’t have intense fall weather, but I will use any reason to wear a good coat or blazer! I love them and I think they can elevate any outfit, really.
A (Fatima): I’m such a blazer girl! I love a good blazer in the fall…it makes me feel super chic.
Q: What is the greatest piece of advice you have ever been given?
A (Jasmin): I would say it’s to always be kind to yourself and trust the process. I think it’s easy to stress over certain things and forget to enjoy the moment. Everything will unfold the way it’s supposed to ☺.
A (Fatima): That’s a hard one…cause I’ve been gifted with so many pearls of wisdom. I’d say one that is resonating with me most right now is to just be present and appreciate every moment because the present truly is a gift.