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Camp Sunshine: An Idyllic Retreat
Camp Sunshine provides a free, idyllic retreat — year-round — to very sick children and their families whose lives are compromised and often in crisis because of the complications of life-threatening illness. The program offers food and lodging, a host of recreational opportunities, psychosocial support, and the peace of mind of an on-site physician, twenty-four hours a day to families from throughout the country and worldwide.
Since its founding in 1984, the camp has had the distinction of being one of the only programs in the nation addressing the impact of a life-threatening illness on every member of the family — the ill child, siblings and parents (and grandparents, too!). The Camp Sunshine experience affords the parents and siblings the opportunity to gain valuable coping skills and allows the ill child to re-experience the joys of childhood. The camp's mission is to help mend the fabric of the family by providing love, hope, and plenty of fun.
For little Noel Reed, who suffers with Hodgkins Lymphoma, the experience was magical! "He entered Camp Sunshine timid, tired, and jaded. He left the camp revitalized, empowered, and full of hope. My six-year-old son, Noel Reed, was given the opportunity to spend a week focusing on life and not death; on hope and not despair; on pure joy and not fear. Camp Sunshine gave Noel more in one week than I or anyone else in Noel's life ever could," said Sarah Reed.
Now two decades old, the camp was established by Anna and Larry Gould, owners of the Point Sebago Resort in Casco, Maine. For the first years, the Goulds donated the resort's facilities and hosted camp sessions for thousands of children with life-threatening illnesses, their families, and countless volunteers.
Right from the start, the overwhelming need for the program's expansion necessitated a permanent home. A capital campaign to build the new campus was launched in 1992. The new home for Camp Sunshine opened its doors in June 2001 with a campus that embodies the organization's commitment to the program and the public's support of its mission.
"When we began the program, we were unaware of how many families had children who were so seriously ill and how great the need was for a family program like ours," the Goulds said. "We had no idea that the program would grow and mature to its current size and depth. We watch all of our families grow emotionally and connect with each other. Even our bereaved families emerge stronger. While we witness parents' worst nightmares, we also witness life's triumphs."
The Benefit of a Year-round Program
When a child faces a life-threatening illness, the family's needs are not limited to one or two seasons. If a family needs the program in the winter, perhaps it cannot wait until the summer. Sadly, some children may not live that long. A year-round program enables the camp to be more responsive to the families when they need help most.
"While the quantity (expanded number) of Camp Sunshine's family programs is impressive," comments Matt Hoidal, the camp's executive director, "the quality and scope of its programming is even more impressive. The addition of programming for children with brain tumors and their families, and another for children with organ transplants, continues to make Camp Sunshine a very unique organization. This uniqueness is perhaps one of the reasons why families will travel from around the world to attend this camp."
To date, Camp Sunshine has made great strides at aggressively expanding its sessions to keep up with the ever-increasing demand among the families. Thanks to the generosity of countless donors, the program has expanded from four sessions in 2000 to twenty-three sessions in 2005. It is the camp's goal to fully complete its expansion to a year-round basis by 2009, when it plans on offering forty-five sessions annually.
The Family Sponsorship Program
Addressing the needs of the children and their families with a unique methodology
Nancy Cincotta, M.S.W., is Camp Sunshine's director of psychosocial services and has been involved with the program for more than a decade. "Camp Sunshine embodies a unique blend of recreational and psychosocial activities staffed by professionals and volunteers, which creates an atmosphere of community and generosity," explains Cincotta. Parents are provided with the opportunity to attend a group workshop program, where they often share the most intimate of feelings. They discuss experiences, emotions, and relevant issues regarding their child's illness and its impact on the family. "The approach," Cincotta continues, "is one of acceptance and support, creating a willingness for families to express their innermost thoughts."
This unique approach is not found elsewhere. At a time when hospital-based services are diminishing, the camp has become a recognized leader in family-centered care. A childhood illness, such as cancer, is really a family disease, having an impact on every member of the family. When a child is hospitalized, the balance of life changes, often separating family members as they struggle to meet the medical needs of their child. Camp Sunshine serves to help restore that sense of balance.
Unfortunately, the availability of support group services has decreased over the past twenty years. Many new families who arrive at Camp Sunshine have never been in a support group. The parent group model, a hallmark of the camp program, is able to help many parents meet others in the same situation and to learn new skills. Families are clear that the experience in the group with other families enhances their own abilities to cope.
Parent support groups at Camp Sunshine are filled with the energy of many people, much more so than home-based programs can be. Each camp group typically allows for a broad range of responses, thus allowing almost everyone to find someone with whom he or she can identify. By the end of the week, mothers and fathers will tell you that they have talked more intimately with other parents than they have at any other time in their lives. Fathers find themselves in a group session just for men, often acknowledging that it is the first time they have ever had that experience.
According to Cincotta, "Dealing with emotional responses to an illness in a safe environment in the splendor of Maine — away from the stressful environment of the child's treatment center — allows the entire family an invaluable therapeutic opportunity."
Volunteers — The Heart and Soul of Camp Sunshine
The program is run predominantly by volunteers, the lifeblood of the camp's organization. From around the nation, approximately sixty-five volunteers come to camp to donate their time and give of their hearts for each session. Since 1984, well over 10,000 volunteers have contributed more than 320,000 hours, saving Camp Sunshine several million dollars. These volunteer efforts give testament to the value of the program and the strength of the organization.
Lessons to be Learned
Volunteers, too, have made wonderfully supportive and priceless connections with the families — like summer intern, Catherine "Cat" Oettinger — who expressed her thoughts in a letter to the camp staff.
"People have asked me how I could manage to be at a place like this all summer," Oettinger said. "They asked me if I thought it was too hard, or too sad. But it wasn't. These children are so full of life and taught me so much about living each day to the fullest. This camp and the people inspired me. I want to thank everyone for the lessons learned, the laughs had, and the friendships and memories made. I learned and grew, and have been changed forever. Before applying it was described to me, by a friend, as the best time of a person's life, an unforgettable life-changing event. I wondered how a summer camp could be that. Now looking back I understand so clearly what she meant."
Originally published in the 2005 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.