Today marks the first official day of camp—a day packed with introductions, icebreakers, exploration, and creative challenges big and small.

This year, there are 26 Innovators, 15 more than last year. They come from four countries—Spain, Mexico, Colombia, and Chile—and their ages range from 15 to 19.

The Innovators live in dormitories at Suffolk University, a research university centrally-located in downtown Boston. The students are a five-minute walk from Government Center and Park St (and its conveniently-placed T stop), a ten-minute walk from the famous Boston Common and Public Garden, and another thirteen-minute walk from the Paul Revere House, among other attractions and places of interest.

Ricardo explains the mission and concept behind the Richi Childhood Cancer Foundation

Ricardo explains the mission and concept behind the Richi Childhood Cancer Foundation

They began their day with a series of introductions. First, Ricardo Garcia—father of Richi, the survivor behind the Richi Childhood Cancer Foundation—speaks for himself and the foundation. “I am not the President,” Ricardo says. “That’s Richi.”

Ricardo emphasizes above all the importance of strategy. “Plan ahead,” he advises. “Try to make a strategy for everything in your life.” 

When Richi was diagnosed with brain cancer, chances of his survival were minimal. But Ricardo and his wife, having heard of an expensive procedure in Boston, fundraised the money that enabled Richi’s survival—about half a million dollars.

A company paid them $200 per ton of plastic bottle caps—with the help of their community, they filled 100 tons. Richi began to paint as a part of art therapy, and, at his recommendation, they sold his canvases, at first on the street, and later online.

Their experience led them to create the foundation. “Every kid deserves what Richi had,” Ricardo explains. “The opportunity to survive.” The foundation, created with a business model, sustains itself not only through charitable donations, but also through initiatives like the Richi Innovation Camp. Next, the introduction of Berta Marti, PhD, one of the camp organizers. A biomedical researcher, Berta has a bachelor’s of science in physics and a PhD in biomedicine from the University of Barcelona. She first became fascinated by the concept of applied physics to medicine when she worked on nuclear medicine imaging with epilepsy patients, and since then has worked in some capacity in the medical field. In 2014, she moved to Boston for a postdoctoral program at MIT and, following that, stayed for a second postdoctoral program at Harvard Medical School. 

She didn’t just introduce herself—she also introduced Boston. Favorite view: the MIT sailing pavilion. Favorite part of the city’s unique energy and composition: how she not only learns about international people in an international city, but also, through the global exchange in Boston, learns things about herself. 

After introductions and lunch, the Innovators walk to the famous Boston Public Garden for fresh air and a series of icebreakers. The students begin by ripping off a piece of toilet paper from a roll passed around a circle. For each square, they name a fun fact about themselves. Oriol, for example, has broken his arms, fingers, and various other extremities throughout his life. Miguel can play the piano. Sociable Ingrid loves to make friends. 

Next, all Innovators give up a single shoe, which is distributed to another person around the circle. They must find that person and find out their name and one interesting fact about them to share with the rest of the circle. Andreas likes to travel. Alex loves the song “Elbow Pain.”

Berta explains the rules of the icebreakers in the Public Garden

Berta explains the rules of the icebreakers in the Public Garden

Then the Innovators get together in groups of three. They are instructed to run through the park and complete miniature challenges—they must, among other things, find someone visiting Boston, someone who was born in Massachusetts, someone married, and someone who has been to Spain and Mexico. They must take photographs with ducks, under a bridge, and with a monument. 

After icebreakers, the students head back to the classroom. Rachel So, PhD, a neuropsychology fellow at the Center for Neurology, introduces the topic for this year’s Challenge—finding a solution for those suffering from the side effects of childhood brain tumors.

Rachel So, PhD, introducing the clinical need of the 2019 Challenge

Rachel So, PhD, introducing the clinical need of the 2019 Challenge

Tumors occur as a result of a growth of abnormal cells in the central nervous system. Little about brain tumors is actively understood in the nebulous, ever-changing field of cancer research—the majority of tumors are spontaneous, not hereditary, and children and adolescents are not miniature adults. The way their brains work is fundamentally different, and so are the consequences of tumors.

Brain tumor itself is a misnomer; the tumors themselves are very nearly too heterogenous to be lumped in with a homogenous name. The exact symptoms and effects of a tumor, Rachel explains, depend largely on its cell type and class, and even within those categories, impairments differ based on location. “We think of a tumor’s grade on a continuum, not a black-and-white dichotomy,” Rachel says. 

The effects of brain tumors can be long-lasting. Outcomes include the possibility for a lower educational achievement, more limited employment, lower income, a lower likelihood of autonomy, and a poorer health-related quality of life. Neurocognitively, things like IQ, working memory, attention, and processing speed may be slower or lower than progress recorded in non-affected adolescents and adults.

The problem is very real, and so is the challenge and its results. The Richi Foundation rests upon a philosophy of helping others whenever possible. It’s not about win-win, and it’s not about quid-pro-quo. It’s about doing what you can to impact the world in a positive way. In this case, that means the Innovators are doing what they can to lessen the impacts of brain tumors in survivors.

Emerson Monks