Camp Sunshine: A silver lining for kids and families

A child with cancer and his or her family may find that their lives suddenly revolve around treatments and doctor's appointments. But through Georgia's Camp Sunshine, they're able to have fun and bond with other kids and families who understand exactly how cancer can affect the entire family.

"It's a silver lining for a very bad thing that's happened," Tenise Newberg, program director at Camp Sunshine, said.

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The nonprofit organization was founded in 1982 by a pediatric nurse; its first summer camp for kids with cancer started the following year with 44 campers. In the years since, it has grown to host other programs (all of which are provided at no cost) as well as several different types of camps, including one that lets preschoolers go on fun day trips, picnics and outings.

Photo: Courtesy of Camp Sunshine/For the AJC

Summer camps for children remain Camp Sunshine's largest focus, and they operate with the help of nurses, doctors and volunteers — many of whom were once campers themselves. Campers are often familiar with the medical staff and vice versa since they might see them for care outside of camp.

The experience includes everything you might expect from a summer camp, such as canoeing, biking, a ropes course, tennis, cooking, yoga, swimming, archery, pottery, a zip line and more.

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"They (the activities) all have the ability to be adaptive to what the child's needs are," Newberg explained.

Activities are designed such that kids aren't limited in what they can do. For example, the pool has a zero-entry design so it's wheelchair accessible, and a child who's visually impaired because of a brain tumor can receive a little more help navigating one of the activities. One who uses a wheelchair may need to be hoisted up to be able to experience the thrill of a zip line.

Photo: Courtesy of Camp Sunshine/For the AJC

"Cancer is not the focus — being a child or a teenager is," Newberg said.

Although summer camps are the organization's largest program, Camp Sunshine provides additional help and support to kids with cancer and their families. Throughout the year, the nonprofit hosts camps for the entire family and other events such as a fall festival, holiday party, teen retreat, school-age overnight, and teen lock-in and an improv night and dinner.

The organization also reaches families through Sunshine 2U, which brings modified camp activities to hospitals. Kids who have cancer and their siblings can enjoy activities such as arts and crafts and scavenger hunts and score camp gear like a T-shirt and water bottle.

Since a child's cancer has a huge impact on the entire family, programs are designed to support siblings and parents as well.

"We try to touch everybody because it touches each family member," Newberg said.

For example, Spa Night gives families the chance to get mini spa treatments. And a camp just for siblings lets them experience the fun activities that their brothers and sisters get to enjoy. They also get to be the center of attention at this camp.

Photo: Courtesy of Camp Sunshine/For the AJC

Activities such as bingo and barbecue bond the families together so they can establish supportive friendships. Some may start as young as preschool age and continue for years to come.

"Cancer's not the focus – it's just what brings them together," according to Newberg.

The Georgia organization operates Camp Sunshine House in Decatur, which houses offices and hosts events for the children and families. Another office is located in Savannah.

Regional programs are also offered around the state to help reach kids who are treated in an Atlanta hospital but live out of town.

To find out more about Camp Sunshine, visit www.mycampsunshine.com. If you'd like to register your child for Camp Sunshine programs, you can do so online or by calling the office at 404-325-7979. Forms are also available at many hospitals and clinics in Georgia that treat children with cancer.

If you'd like to help the organization, you can make a donationvolunteer or collect items from Camp Sunshine's wish list.

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