Larry Chloupek, of Potomac, was 7 years old when he lost a leg to cancer. He remembers coming home from the hospital and seeing the banner his family and friends had draped across the garage door. "Welcome home, Larry," it said.
He was worried back then, he said, but not so much about the prospect of dying. He worried that other children would laugh at him when he returned to school. He worried that he wouldn't get to play football any more.
Now Chloupek is 29. He has a senior staff job at the federal Office of Personnel Management, a condominium in Potomac and a full schedule of civic meetings and sports contests.
But on weekends, he returns in a way to his past. Chloupek works as a volunteer with Special Love Inc., through which he counsels sick children throughout the area and lets them see that losing a limb is not the end of an active life, that cancer can be overcome.
"I think it helps the other patients to see that I am a survivor, that you can make it and be successful. You need those role models out there," Chloupek said. "The support I got from my family and friends was superb, but there was certainly not an organization around like this when I lost my leg -- and I guess I wish that there had been."
Special Love, which is based in Winchester, Va., was founded nine years ago to provide support for children and teenagers who have cancer, and their families. Besides its recreational and cultural programs, the nonprofit organization also is known for running Camp Fantastic, a one-week summer camp in Front Royal, Va., for cancer patients ages 7 to 25. About 250 youths from the Washington area are involved in the organization, with about 1,000 volunteers lending their support.
"We're not going to find a cure for cancer, but we give these kids every reason to enjoy life and to want to live through the experience," said Dave Smith, executive director for Special Love. "We give them a chance to be a kid, which is all they really want anyway."
Chloupek is there to play with them, listen to them and answer questions that only someone like him could respond to firsthand.
"I think some of the kids have a great fear of death," he said. "This is a disease where they don't know if they are going to make it. They don't know if they are going to pull through or not. And we're there to show them, yes, they can, they will.
"One of the key things they need to know is they've got to have the right attitude to manage on a day-to-day basis or to go through a particular sequence of chemotherapy," continued Chloupek, who alternately uses a prosthesis and crutches.
Chloupek, who grew up in Potomac as the oldest of four children, sees his volunteer work as a way to help others and to give thanks for the happy ending to his story. At the time his illness was diagnosed as osteosarcoma, doctors said that he had about a 5 percent chance of survival. Only 7 years old then, Chloupek did not know what the word "cancer" meant. He had to ask his mother. All he knew was that his leg had been sore and its bruises would not heal.
"I vividly remember the day in the hospital room," he said, "when the doctor came in and said the leg would have to be amputated."
But Chloupek, a self-described Type A personality, says that even in his youth he was determined not to let his condition get him down. For the next seven years, he had to get X-rays to see if his cancer had returned, always a nerve-racking experience. But, he said, his attitude always had to remain positive: " 'Hey, I'm going to kick this thing.' And then you go out and kick it."
He did not lose his love for sports, he said, and today he often competes with what he calls "able-bodied" players in golf, football, basketball and skiing. He also was never shunned as he feared by his classmates, he said, and served as class president for three years at Churchill High School. He later graduated from American University.
In choosing to work with children who have cancer, Chloupek also is putting himself in a position where he can never quite get away from the fact that he once suffered from the disease.
But he says he doesn't mind the reminders. Instead, he said, he finds himself exhilarated after a weekend with the children.
"You go for a weekend and you come back with a tremendous upbeat feeling," he said. "You really see the love and the camaraderie that has developed. Because we all have that one special bond. Cancer has tried to defeat us, but we can overcome it."