It had been three days since the first week of Camp Sunshine ended, and Colleen Austin had returned to her post at the Aflac Cancer Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
And she was still pumped.
For five days, she’d watched 232 teens — some angry, some afraid, some sad about what cancer had stolen from them — take back their lives.
“They get to be kids again,” Austin said. “They get to be happy the way kids should be.”
And so every year for the past 29, Austin has returned to Camp Sunshine in search of such moments, the ones recorded in pictures on her iPhone, the ones embodied in the 29 bracelets dangling on her left wrist.
When she began in 1983, it was on her own time. Now Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta gives her the week off with pay.
For the past 10 years or so, the hospital has been among a growing number of corporations, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution included, that allow employees to volunteer while still on the clock.
Such corporate generosity — which can vary from financially supporting employees’ own initiatives to get involved to coordinating a company-level volunteering day — is increasing, said Jessica Rodell, an assistant professor of management at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business.
Steve Delfin, president and CEO of America’s Charities, a nonprofit representing 115 national charities, agreed.
“We are experiencing a paradigm shift in workplace giving with a new model emerging that empowers employees to participate in the giving experience inside and outside the walls of the workplace,” Delfin said.
Increasingly, Rodell said, business plans mention volunteer programs — up from 19 percent in 1992 to 48 percent in 1999 — and it is paying off for both employee and employer.
“In general, employees who volunteer tend to have higher levels of self-esteem and are happier with their lives,” Rodell said. “At work, employees who volunteer receive more help from colleagues and resources, such as pay and promotion, from supervisors.”
Austin, who recently celebrated her 60th birthday, said when she first started volunteering in 1983 she was a floor nurse working in the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta oncology unit.
“Just working in a hospital setting, nurses feel like they do so much to enrich kids lives and then they (the children) died,” Austin said. “Camp Sunshine made me realize that there was more to life than how long you live. It was the quality of life that mattered. I think it made us strive to work harder at making sure kids live their life to the fullest as long as they have.”
According to Rodell, studies show that about half of all volunteers are employed and, on average, 32 percent of workers volunteer through their company programs. For businesses with fewer than 10,000 employees, the percent is higher — 53 percent versus 25 percent for companies with more than 10,000 employees.
“From a bottom-line perspective, every recent study shows that engaged workers are far less likely to leave an employer and they are more likely to develop new skills than disengaged employees,” Delfin said. “Employee-turnover costs alone cost employers some $11 billion a year.”
While Children’s Healthcare doesn’t keep track of employee volunteer hours, Austin is one of about 50 who volunteer each year at Camp Sunshine, said Linda Matzigkeit, chief administration officer at Children’s.
“Employees at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta are very nurturing and innate caregivers,” Matzigkeit said. “We work very hard to give our people the support, both personally and professionally, to learn, grow and give back.”
Austin described volunteering at Camp Sunshine as “career changing,” as it made her realize how important her work in pediatric oncology is to Children’s Healthcare patients and families.
As she played with the bracelets on her wrist the other day, she remembered a 7-year-old boy who gave her her first camp bracelet and hug. His one goal was to sleep on the top bunk because he’d never done that before.
“The first night he fell off and got a black eye, but it was like a badge of courage for him,” she said. “They made him a cape and he became Superman.”
Four months later he died from acute myeloid leukemia. But for that one week “he stepped out of his illness and back into his childhood,” Austin said. “That’s why I do this.”
It’s also why every June, she dons her camp bracelets — 29 strings of fishing lures and beads for each year of camp — and wears them for the entire month. Each one reminds her of the children she has helped reclaim their childhood and the bonds fostered at Camp Sunshine.
“We’re constantly reminded that it’s their journey,” she said. “But it’s our journey too and we’re important players in that journey.’
Camp Sunshine allows them to be the happy kids they were meant to be, but it also reinvigorates the nurses and other support staff, Austin said.
“Yesterday was terribly busy but I never felt tired,” she said back at the hospital cancer unit. “I still haven’t come down from the camp experience.”