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Sunrise Day Camp: “Where Children With Cancer Find New Beginnings”

By Jolie Freedman

New atmosphere. New people. New experience. New job. There were so many worries running through my head on the morning of my first day as a counselor at Sunrise Day Camp. I feared the unexpected and was petrified as I envisioned everything that could go wrong. I spent the past 8 summers as a camper at a sleepaway camp, and now, it was my turn to take care of campers. After finishing my first summer, I look back on my first day and am so thankful I went through what turned out to be the most fulfilling and eye-opening experience of my life.

Sunrise Day Camp is a non-profit camp for kids with cancer and their siblings. Many of these campers undergo chemotherapy treatment, spend countless hours at the hospital, or have to watch their siblings go through the daily horrors of having cancer. Sunrise is not only a place where campers can enjoy themselves, but it also helps kids escape the harsh realities of their lives and regain the childhood that was stripped away from them. Sunrise cultivates a “safe haven” where each kid can feel comfortable and happy. Sunrise goes above and beyond, raising the bar each and every year, to make sure these kids have everything they need for a good summer. Whether it’s the extremely well-trained medical staff, allergy policies, or emphasis on washing hands, Sunrise always makes the health and happiness of the campers a priority. This past summer was the 12th anniversary of Sunrise Day Camp, and there are currently 7 different camps located all over the world. This year, 400 people applied to be counselors and only 80 were hired. I felt extremely proud of myself for getting the job, yet was extremely nervous at the counselor orientations as I looked around at all of the experienced counselors. Nonetheless, I knew I had to swallow my nerves and go in with an open mind.

From ages 3 1/2 -16, kids come from near and far with all different backgrounds to have amazing days at camp. This summer, I was a counselor for 2nd grade girls. Some of my campers were in active treatment or remission, while others were siblings of kids with cancer. Either way, every kid came into camp with a huge smile on their face and walked out with an even bigger one. Still, some of these kids had a hard time being in an unusual environment with a lot of kids or just struggled to accept the realities of their lives. Many of the kids had behavioral or medical issues, and I learned how to cope with each camper’s specific needs. Sunrise runs just as any other day camp would: activities, special events, dress up days, and color war. However, the spirit and energy level at this camp are truly one of a kind. Everyday at roundup, the campers have spirit competitions and everyone sings the Sunrise theme song together. I was taken aback everyday at roundup as I watched kids scream, “Sunrise Day Camp! It’s the best camp!” at the top of their lungs. This camp is also unique because of the generosity of the wide variety of donors. Without donations, running this camp would not be possible. Throughout the summer, companies and volunteer groups donated presents for the kids. On the NBC Sports themed day, each kid got a headband and t-shirt. On another day, Skechers came to camp and provided each kid with a new pair of shoes to decorate.

If you’re wondering how you can get involved with this organization, don’t hesitate to visit and donate! Every donation, no matter how big or small, helps to make camp an even better place for the campers. There are also annual walks and charity events, as well as Sunrise on Wheels. Sunrise on Wheels is a program that brings camp to kids in hospitals. Volunteers keep kids company and play games with kids who spend a lot of time in the hospital.

The love at Sunrise is contagious and watching my campers grow over the summer was so heartwarming. Whether it was learning how to swim properly or overcoming a behavioral issue, each of my campers grew in their own unique way this summer. Although there were moments of frustration and tears, I walked out of this summer knowing that I changed the lives of many of campers. I learned how to stay patient and act as a rock for some of the kids who came to me with their emotional problems. I learned that challenges are an expected part of the day at Sunrise, and I would have to work to always overcome them and put the campers’ happiness and safety first.

On the last day, I couldn’t hold back the tears as I watched the buses roll away. I’ll never forget the moments of hand holding, cheering, and watching my kids form bonds with one another. I wish that I could be there today, hanging out with the campers and my co-counselors who became my best friends in just one short summer.