When a child receives a cancer diagnosis, he’s no longer just a kid. He’s a kid with cancer. Suddenly, he’s different from everyone else, and he probably doesn’t know anyone who’s going through the same frightening experience. It can be a very isolating and traumatic time. But thanks to Camp Sunshine, an organization that is dedicated to offering “an infusion of love, support, fun and acceptance for children with cancer,” it doesn’t have to be.
Founded in 1982 by pediatric nurse Dorothy Jordan, Camp Sunshine began as a summer camp program for children diagnosed with cancer. Her goal was to provide participating youngsters with an entertaining, relaxing and traditional summer experience, complete with everything from swimming and fishing to horseback riding and arts and crafts. What made the camp feasible for the children was that it featured 24-hour medical care, so even kids receiving chemotherapy could have medically supervised treatments and still partake in the daily activities. The first event, which hosted 44 children, was so successful that today the summer camp program consists of two one-week camps—one for children who are between the ages of 7 and 12, and one for teens between the ages 13 and 18. Both are held annually at Camp Twin Lakes, a 500-acre facility in Rutledge, Ga. that specializes in offering therapeutic and recreational camps for children with serious illnesses and other physical, emotional and life challenges. Each Camp Sunshine summer camp, which is held in partnership with physicians and nurses from Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, now welcomes more than 200 participants.
The impact is clear. “We are changing lives,” says Sally Hale, MN, RN, executive director of Camp Sunshine, who served as a nurse at the very first camp held in 1983. “When the children are at camp, theyare just like everyone else. It gives them such a confidence boost because often it’s the first time in a long time that they’ve felt normal. And after camp, many parents say that we have actually given them their old child back. It’s very exciting.”
Maintaining that positive feeling year-round has become central to Camp Sunshine’s endeavors. With the success of its flagship camp program, the organization began adding programs to its repertoire in 1987, taking into account not only the needs of the children, but also their parents, siblings and other loved ones. Hale notes, “After having conversations with the families over time, we’ve strategically added programs that offer support, love and compassion.” The ancillary programs, which are available to any child from infancy to age 18 who has been diagnosed and treated in Georgia, include family camp weekends, a fall festival, holiday parties, educational seminars, a teen retreat, a lock-in and winter dance, young adult workshops, preschool programs, sibling camps, individual counseling and much more.
Needing a venue in which to offer all of its programs, Camp Sunshine built and opened the Camp Sunshine House in 2003. Located in Decatur, the unique non-residential facility is the perfect meeting place for children with cancer and their families, who can come together on a weekly basis for comfort, friendship, encouragement, education and much-needed fun.
Of course, while the Camp Sunshine House is accessible to those living in metro Atlanta, other families around Georgia may find it difficult to travel to the facility to participate in the organization’s myriad of programs. That’s why Camp Sunshine has expanded its efforts to other communities throughout the state, offering a wide array of regional activities and programs. It’s just one more way to make a difference in the lives of children who deserve to enjoy all of the everyday adventures that come with growing up. “Some doctors have recommended that Camp Sunshine’s programs be part of their patients’ treatment. That’s because these children should be able to experience normal childhood activities,” Hale concludes. “And that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re working to give them their childhood back.”
For more information, visit www.mycampsunshine.com.
Camp Sunshine’s many offerings are provided at no cost to children living with cancer and their families. Private foundations, individuals, corporations and other organizations help support the cost of all programs. If you would like to make a donation, you can do so online. Visit www.mycampsunshine.com to either make a general donation or contribute to a specific fundraising event or effort.