Belmonte’s last cancer campout on Northampton courthouse lawn

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  • Monte Belmonte of WRSI-FM enters the “Grateful Dead Thunderdome” to check what’s playing during the third hour of his live broadcast from the Hampshire County Courthouse lawn in Northampton for his last Cancer Connection Camp Out on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Current Cancer Connection Executive Director Beverly Herbert, left, former director Betsy Neisner, center, and co-founder and former director Deb Orgera listen as Monte Belmonte of WRSI broadcasts the last "Camp Out" benefit from the Hampshire County Courthouse lawn in Northampton on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Cancer Connection Executive Director Beverly Herbert, left, is interviewed by Monte Belmonte of WRSI-FM during his final Camp Out on the Hampshire County Courthouse lawn in Northampton on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Music from a Grateful Dead video plays continuously in the "Grateful Dead Thunderdome" during the Cancer Connection Camp Out on the Hampshire County Courthouse lawn in Northampton on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Cancer Connection Camp Out camper Sally Prasch, left, of Montague and Matt Peterson of WRSI-FM unload a truckload of donated wood to burn in the event’s warming fire on the Hampshire County Courthouse lawn in Northampton on Wednesday. The scrap wood comes from craftsman Spencer Peterman of Gill. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Cancer Connection Community Relations Director Anna-Beth Winograd, right, is interviewed by Monte Belmonte of WRSI-FM during his final Camp Out on the Hampshire County Courthouse lawn in Northampton on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The Cancer Connection Camp Out "Thunderdome" plays a constant feed of Grateful Dead music on the south lawn of the Hampshire County Courthouse in Northampton early Wednesday morning, Feb. 26, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Cheli Mennella, of Colrain, attaches a string of stars to her tent that bears the names of cancer victims and cancer survivors while getting ready for the annual Cancer Connection Camp Out, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020 on the lawn of the Hampshire County Courthouse. It is her eighth year camping out, something she began after her mother died of cancer. She said it's a way to "honor her memory and help people in the community who are coping with cancer." —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Greg Lawrence of Whately sets up a tent Wednesday in preparation for the annual Cancer Connection Camp Out on the lawn of the Hampshire County Courthouse. He said it’s his fourth year attending and he is usually with his son, Henry, 12, but he’s sick. He said Henry raised $1,600 this year by hosting a bingo night and asking for donations from friends and neighbors. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Dave Loomis, from left, Dave Noonan and Noah Tilley, of the band Dead to the Core, perform Grateful Dead songs during the last annual Cancer Connection Camp Out, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020 on the lawn of the Hampshire County Courthouse. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • An informational card for the final year of the Cancer Connection Camp Out bears an illustration that incorporates a picture of Monte Belmonte. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

For the Gazette
Published: 2/26/2020 11:36:51 PM

NORTHAMPTON — It was damp and cloudy Wednesday as a dozen or so campers pitched their tents on the lawn of the courthouse on Main Street and gathered around a fire sipping coffee, enjoying each other’s company, if not the weather.

They laughed, ate snacks and traded stories about what brought them out for WSRI radio personality Monte Belmonte’s last annual Cancer Connection Camp Out fundraiser — their stories drowned out every so often by the rumbling of traffic or passing sirens.

The fundraiser, which takes place Wednesday and Thursday, is an annual collaboration between Belmonte and Cancer Connection that raises money for the cancer center, whose work is dedicated to providing resources for patients, family and friends of those struggling with cancer.

Unfortunately, the Camp Out on the courthouse lawn, which started in 2006, is pitching its tents this year for the last time.

“The courthouse has been so great and generous with us over the years,” Belmonte said at the campout. But with the ownership of the courthouse changing hands in the next few weeks, Belmonte decided it was time for the annual event to draw to a close. “Let’s go out on a high, noodly note,” he said.

The Camp Out has become a tradition of sorts in downtown Northampton. When Belmonte held the first Cancer Connection Camp Out in 2006, he was alone, camping in 2 feet of snow. “I felt like if I put myself in a precarious situation people would pay attention,” he explained. Sure enough, they did. The fundraising goal that first year was $5,000.

“Five thousand seemed like an ambitious goal, but we hit it by nightfall,” Belmonte recalled. “I camped out anyway, and we hit $10,000 total.”

On the 10th anniversary of the Camp Out, Belmonte and a growing number of campers on the courthouse lawn raised $100,000 in two nights. In 2019, they raised the same total in just a single night. For the last Camp Out however, there is no fundraising end goal. “We’re looking to make as much as possible,” Belmonte said. The radio station was broadcasting throughout the day Wednesday and was to continue Thursday to raise as much for Cancer Connection as possible.

To incentivize donations and add a “twist” to the Camp Out, Belmonte will sleep in a plastic geometric dome donated by MGM Springfield. The dome, titled the “Thunderdome,” will be blasting the Grateful Dead all night long, a band Belmonte particularly detests and which he has turned into a running joke. “I likely won’t sleep tonight,” he said with a laugh.

While broadcasting throughout the day, Belmonte hangs around a fire blazing on the courthouse walkway with other campers and Cancer Connection employees. Rose Lynch, who first camped with Monte eight years ago, is among the crowd.

Lynch lost her husband to cancer 10 years ago, and when she needed support, Cancer Connection was there. “They’ve been there for me,” she said. “The connections they make with you are really deep, really quick. And that was comfortable and affirming.”

“Cancer Connection is a place for people to just come be,” Executive Director Beverly Herbert said. The Cancer Connection center offers support free of charge for “individuals with cancer, caregivers, and children and family,” Herbert said. Many of those taking part in the Camp Out have been touched by cancer in some way.

Sally Prasch and Za Burkhart are two such campers. This is their second year camping with Belmonte, but it’s far from the second year they’ve known Cancer Connection. Burkhart “lost a close friend in December of 2018” to cancer, and Prasch has had a number of friends use the center.

“Cancer Connection had people to talk those with cancer through things,” Prasch said. “That’s what you need, because the doctors don’t have enough time.”

Prasch saw the benefit that the organization brought to her friends and then saw what Belmonte was doing every year to help raise money for the cause.

“I’m amazed at what he does,” Prasch said. “He’s raised so much money just by being a crazy guy.”

“It’s incredible,” Burkhart said. “It’s such a good experience, and there’s something appealing about doing something crazy like camping outside in the snow and rain … You have to be a little crazy to do it.”

That wild eagerness is something Belmonte will miss most about the Camp Outs. “One of the things I’ll miss most are the people who did this dumb thing with me,” he said, “who expose themselves to the elements and the weather.”

And while this is the last Camp Out, it’s not the end of the radio host’s work with Cancer Connection.

“I have some more fun and comfortable events in mind,” Belmonte said with a grin.

Herbert added that she looks forward to running with whatever “crazy idea Belmonte comes up with … We’ll continue to broaden our vision and connection as we move forward regardless.”

As Belmonte moved back toward the Thunderdome pumping out Grateful Dead, Prasch hollered at him from her chair next to the fire: “I don’t think you should stop this fundraising event!”

Belmonte turned back and laughed.

“Well, we’re stopping this event,” he said, “but we certainly won’t stop fundraising.”




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