By Stacy Dibbern
Stacy is the manager of the Annual Catholic Appeal and special projects. She and her husband, Jamie, were first-time volunteers at Camp Sunshine.
What did you do on your summer vacation? Isn’t that the question we are asked most when we return from a week’s absence? Well, this year, my husband Jamie and I volunteered at Camp Sunshine in Casco, Maine. Camp Sunshine is a camp that serves families of children with life-threatening illnesses. The unique thing about Camp Sunshine is that the whole family attends camp together- sick kids, siblings, parents, and in some cases, grandparents, all without paying a penny. Each family is sponsored by generous donors.
The session began on Saturday morning with the arrival of camp volunteers. There were about 80 volunteers for our session- Oncology week. Volunteers came from as far away as Florida and represented families, schools and church youth groups. They ranged in age from 16 to one couple in their 60s. Many of the volunteers were camp families at one time.
As “rookie” camp volunteers, Jamie and I were unsure what to expect. We had applied for volunteer positions in early spring and knew a few people who had worked at camp before, but as with anything new, we were a little nervous preparing for camp.
Upon arrival, we were met by Carol, a camp staff member, who gave us our room keys and name tags. We were rather early (many of our family and friends joke about how we are always early!) so we found our room and unpacked. We were told that we might be sharing our room with other volunteers so we chose the room with two beds in it, leaving the bunk beds and the futon for anyone who might be joining us later. It turned out that we had the room to ourselves!
After unpacking, we still had time before the volunteer orientation so we decided to explore the grounds. What we found was a magical place- complete with a mini-golf course, climbing wall, “wishing pond” (more on that later!), lakefront beach, volleyball court, playgrounds and really cool outdoor kitchen. We were in love with the place and we hadn’t even met anyone yet!!!
At 11:00 the volunteers gathered in the dining hall for our orientation and assignments. Jamie was assigned to “Kitchen Crew” which meant that he was helping to prepare and serve three meals a day to more than 200 campers and volunteers. The Kitchen Crew consisted of three staff members and about 15 volunteers. I was assigned to the “Tot Lot and Nursery” which serves children from birth through 5 years old. I was going to be working one-on-one with a 4 year-old boy who has ALL (Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia). I was a little nervous- would he like me?
Families started arriving at around 2pm and we were ready! There were volunteers assigned to help families with their luggage, greeting families, and many other activities. Jamie and I didn’t have a specific assignment so we decided to sit on the front porch and greet folks as they arrived. We heard harrowing stories of long car rides (it was Saturday of the July 4th weekend!!) and clogged highways but every family was all smiles when they jumped out of their cars.
Dinner was the first time we all gathered together- yellow shirts (volunteers) were told that if a camp family is in line behind you, that you should direct them to the front of the line. Many of the parents in the camp families weren’t comfortable with this “rule” but the kids loved it!! This mealtime ritual continued throughout camp and the parents got a little more comfortable with it (especially when there was ice cream for dessert!)
Each day, the Tot Lot & Nursery volunteers gathered in a pre-school style room complete with more toys, games and ride-ons than you could imagine. We had a fenced-in play lot outdoors that included a sandbox, swings, slides and houses for imaginary play. Our youngest child was 16 months old- he was so adorable!! We had a total of 9 campers in the Tot Lot.
On Tuesday, a group of three Navy SEALs and one Coast Guardsman completed the “No Man Left Behind” Challenge to raise awareness and funds for military families to attend camp. They headed off on bicycles at 8 a.m. from the front parking lot and biked 15 miles, then swam ½ mile, then ran 3.5 miles, then biked another 15 miles, then ran another 5 miles then swam another 2 miles, and finished off the challenge with a 5 mile kayak trip to the shores of Camp Sunshine. All completed in under 7 hours- these guys were so cool! Then they stayed at camp for the rest of the week just hanging out with the kids and playing Newcomb Volleyball, dancing, singing, whatever the campers wanted!
A typical day included parents dropping their children off at 9 a.m. in their groups and heading off to their own activities. Parents had group therapy sessions, challenge course activities and games such as Super Dooper Bloopers. At noon, parents would gather their children and head to the dining hall for lunch. The young ones (up to age 8) stayed with their families for “rest time” until 2 p.m., while the 9-12 and teens went back to their groups. At 2 p.m. the little ones returned for afternoon activities. Play-doh, movies, mini-golf or arts and crafts were the favorites. At 5 p.m., parents again retrieved their kids for dinner and whatever evening activities were planned. There was a masquerade ball on one night, fireworks on the 4th, a talent show and the Celebration night. Celebration night included launching “wishboats” on the pond. Children decorated their wishboats during arts and crafts time and on Wednesday night, the entire camp gathered around the wishing pond. This was a very emotional event- some of the families have children who are still receiving treatment for their various cancers. After the wishboat launch, we went inside for the Celebration Show- a time for each group to get up on stage and do a skit of some sort. The Tot Lot group sang Yankee Doodle while playing various instruments. Each group had a great time and got a standing ovation!
While saying goodbye was difficult- we had developed some very strong bonds with many of the camp families- Jamie and I knew that it would not be the end of our service to Camp Sunshine. We have already decided that we will give at least one week each summer to serve the wonderful families there. We also decided that our goal this year will be to sponsor one family to attend a session at camp, a $2500 endeavor. Upon our return, we reached out to family and friends asking them to consider making a donation to this very worthy cause.