Camp Volunteers Get Just As Much Love As They Give
By Amanda Roberge
The air was crisp and the fall sky was clear as I crossed onto the piney grounds at Camp Sunshine, a peaceful recreational camp in the woods of Maine devoted to helping children with life-threatening illnesses and their families.
I was there to volunteer for the afternoon during a session dedicated to children with brain tumors. I was there for one of my friends, whose son has multiple diagnoses and for whom Camp Sunshine has become as important -- if not more important -- to her than her own friends and local community.
At camp, people understand. At camp, her entire family finds acceptance, compassion and respite from the daily grind of hospital visits, MRIs and medications.
And I was there, sobbing into my friend's arms in the parking lot just minutes after my stint was over. I was overwhelmed, mostly, by the beauty I'd been blinded with in the people I met, in their compassion and caring for each other and for their kids and camp community.
"I can't believe I'm crying in the Camp Sunshine parking lot," I bawled.
"You aren't the first person to cry in this parking lot, and you won't be the last," she joked, wrapping her arms around me, despite the fact that I had traveled all that way to comfort her.
It was then that she broke the tension and shared with me the first lesson everyone learns in these unbearably special environments -- you are never alone, and you are always loved.
Camp Sunshine is one of a handful of camps across New England that caters to a special population of kids -- those who are medically fragile or emotionally in need. These camps invite and welcome a broad spectrum of campers, whose needs for summer fun -- while as great as any other child's -- are wrapped up in much more tender and sensitive packaging.
Dream Days, a camp nestled deep in the woods of Cape Cod's Nickerson State Park, offers a family camp experience for people who have medical needs beyond what is typical, and who suffer from complex medical diagnoses.
And for children and teens whose needs are more emotional than physical, Comfort Zone is a bereavement camp that rents facilities in various Massachusetts locations, this year on Cape Cod, to support children who have suffered a significant family loss.
Each camp is designed with the same ideals: They all exist to give kids the chance to enjoy water sports, arts and crafts, field trips and team building activities while giving them access to counseling, support and education about ways to cope with their own unique situation.
But mostly, each camp maintains, it's about the fun.
"Dealing with the emotional piece can be really hard," said Long Island teen Ashley Brown, who began at Dream Days as a volunteer and served the following year as a counselor. "But when we are there, the very most important thing is making sure the kids are having fun. We want to see them laughing and making memories with friends, just like any kid at summer camp."
Marina Napoletano was first introduced to Comfort Zone Camp in 2008 after her father passed away. Now age 25 and a graduate of UMass Amherst, she is among those campers who have returned as counselors in order to spread some of the love that she once felt so relieved and fortunate to receive.
"Volunteering (and being a camper) with Comfort Zone Camp continues to shape my relationship with my own loss, and with grief and death as a part of my life," she said. "Being able to volunteer as a teen granted me a space and and an environment in which to learn how to incorporate my loss into my identity and my life in a healthy way."
Like Napoletano, Methuen's Caroline Hamilton, 17, is a camper who graduated to volunteer. Having spent plenty of time on the shores of Sebago Lake at Camp Sunshine as a child coming to terms with life with brain tumors, she now helps others along their journey.
In fact, she has inspired groups of friends from her high school to join her and she speaks at events to support the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and hopes to inspire others to see for themselves how wonderful it feels to volunteer.
"I find it to be a very rewarding experience," she said. "It's been really cool to work behind the scenes and to be able to help other people."
Volunteers Always Needed
According to Dream Days Camp Director Dave Hudnall, camp runs on volunteers. This is a sentiment echoed at each camp: Without the volunteers, none of it would be possible.
For Ashley Brown, who spends summer with her grandparents on Cape Cod and was looking for a way to fill her days, beginning as a volunteer at Dream Days was a great way to get her foot in the door and satisfy her desire to be of service to others. Some teens volunteer with their families and get lodging through the organization, like at Camp Sunshine where volunteers are housed in dorms.
Each of the camps work hard to match volunteers with a task or job that they will get maximum enjoyment from, which will translate to campers and make for a great experience all around.
According to Sue Oppici, Regional Marketing Officer at Comfort Zone, capitalizing on the strengths of each volunteer is the best way to ensure a successful and rewarding camp experience.
"We have a very individualized matching process," she said. "Maybe a family will come in and we will have them serve lunch in the dining hall because we see how well they work together as a team, or maybe they are very athletic so we will have them helping out on the ropes course."
According to both Hudnall and Katz, who run camps with permanent locations, volunteers are also welcomed in the off season to do clean-up and maintenance work.
"We are always looking for help with camp beautification,"said Katz, who added that scouting and school groups are a great resource to the camp.
Whatever the task, finding a place to be of service at a camp -- a camp full of sunshine, dreams and comfort -- is sure to change life for the better.
"Volunteerism has shaped the course of my entire life," said Lily Daigle, who has spent the past eight summers with Comfort Zone camp and who claims that her early experiences as a camper led her to her current career with another bereavement camp. "Camp has given me a family I can always depend on."
"Most of the tears here are happy tears," said Mike Katz, Executive Director at Camp Sunshine. "I find that most of the crying happens when people have to say goodbye."
It would be easy to imagine that a camp filled with kids diagnosed with pediatric cancer or grieving children would be hard on everyone, but by all accounts the hardest thing is leaving that weekend, or week, of beautiful experiences and people behind.
"People might not really understand what the magic is until they have experienced it," added Katz. "They come and they see how uplifting it is here, how much courage these families and children have. And they leave saying, 'Oh, I get it now.'"