One day a year, kids come to Children's Hospital Central California with suitcases and sleeping bags, but they don’t plan to stay. On this electric summer day, about 100 children aged 8 to 15 gather at the Hospital not because they’re headed for surgery or treatments, but because they’re headed for camp.
Camp Sunshine Dreams provides a distinct camping experience for kids suffering from cancer, and since siblings also struggle with the illness, this special camp welcomes them too.
“This is a place where we focus on kids, not focus on cancer,” said Julie Bowen, a registered nurse and 15-year veteran staff member at Camp Sunshine Dreams.
Since the first 25 campers and staff of 10 attended back in 1987, over 1,000 kids from all over Central California have joined this camping community. The campers, counselors and staff swim in different circles, but they’ve all been caught in the same net. Cancer has threatened to pull them under one way or another.
Chelsea Harkness began attending Camp Sunshine Dreams when she was 12. Now a beautiful young woman, Harkness serves as a counselor each year. Shortly after her transition from camper to counselor, she wrote about her experiences. “Camp Sunshine Dreams came into my life during the second year of my chemotherapy treatment for leukemia,” she wrote. “I'll never forget the feeling that I had throughout my first week of camp. I couldn't believe that such a wonderful place existed. Cancer takes away a part of a kid's childhood. In a way, the week at camp makes up for that.”
Held the first week of August each year in beautiful Huntington Lake, Camp Sunshine Dreams opens with lunch on Monday and ends Saturday after breakfast. The time between offers campers many of the same activities healthy children enjoy at a typical summer camp. Children who have been robbed of the carefree nature of childhood have the opportunity to participate in archery, boating, arts and crafts, sports, campfires, music and more.
“It's different to be a kid with cancer,” continued Harkness. “You grow up fast. There's a lot of intense pain, both physically and emotionally. The worst part about it is that nobody on the outside, including friends and family, quite understands what a cancer kid really has to deal with. But at Camp Sunshine Dreams, everyone understands what a cancer kid has to deal with.”
“We know the difficulties each of the patients is going through,” said Steve Hamm, a camp counselor and two-time cancer survivor. “It's really helpful since not all of your friends at school will be able to appreciate what it's like to have toxic chemicals flowing through your vein.”
“It's like they don't even care,” said Kayli Jankowski, an 11-year-old camper of her experiences away from the supportive camp community. “But here, it's like everybody cares.”
The testimonies of these campers, counselors and hundreds of others like them fulfill Sunny Shervem’s vision for Camp Sunshine Dreams. Shervem, the original Child Life director at Children's Hospital Central California, founded and named the camp with a clear sense of purpose. “We wanted a name that expressed being outdoors and having a good time, and having dreams for the future,” said Shervem.
In the 25 years since its founding, Camp Sunshine Dreams has remained as purpose-driven as its name. “One of our desires was that we would create something that the kids would eventually run, and that’s happening,” she said. “It’s their camp.” Shervem pointed out that 50 percent of current staff members attended camp as patients or siblings before joining the leadership team.
Shervem’s legacy continues through Pam Aiello, the current camp director who took on the leadership mantle after Shervem stepped down in 2006. Aiello joined the staff in 1997, but she heard about Camp Sunshine Dreams the year of its inception. “I’ve been involved with camp since the very beginning through my son, Matt,” she said. Diagnosed with brain cancer in 1985, Matt attended the inaugural camp session in 1987. “He went to the first camp when he was 8, and he went all the way until he passed away at 19,” said Aiello. “Matt was the program director when he died. His younger brother, Anthony, has now taken over that position.”
Aiello carries the same torch as Shervem – a torch her son carried as long as he could.
“A goal of mine for camp is to get some of the kids that have grown up through it to take it over and keep it going,” said Aiello, acknowledging that one day she will also retire as director. “I’ve put so much into it. I’d hate to have it not continue.” The enthusiastic bunch of junior counselors who join the volunteer staff year after year should calm any fears the camp might not continue.
Of the 45 volunteer staff members at each camp session, usually about 10 of them are 17-year-old junior counselors – just two years older than the oldest campers. “They sit out for a year when they’re 16,” said Yvonne Wood, manager of patient throughput at Children's Hospital Central California and 15-year veteran staff member of Camp Sunshine Dreams. “The reason is so they can go from ‘this is about me’ to ‘this is about you.’ And they do. They come back ready to serve the kids.”
Wood expressed her admiration for a young man named Brian Scharbach who celebrated his 21st birthday at camp in August. “He used to be a camper,” she said with pride. “He was my cancer patient when he was a 1-year-old, and look at him now!” The muscular young man towered over her with a grin.
The camp where Scharbach spent many memorable summers also celebrated a milestone that year, as expressed by the camp’s theme: Happy 25th Birthday, Camp Sunshine Dreams. Several camp alumni showed up for the party, including Shervem, supportive community members and Child Life staff from Children's Hospital. The campers celebrated by singing their favorite camp songs, devouring a giant birthday cake and playing various carnival games.
Even with the added excitement of a birthday party, the highlight of Camp Sunshine Dreams remained the same – the quiet and reflective time campers spend with the “spirit stick.” The revered tradition involves gathering cabin mates together with a stick they found in the woods. One by one, campers share how their lives have been affected by cancer as they carve the stick. “At pre-camp training we do a spirit stick just so that new people can get a feel for what it’s all about,” said Aiello.
Counselors encourage the kids in their cabins to break away as a single unit at least two times during the week with their spirit stick. As both staff and campers take a turn carving and talking about their personal experiences with cancer, the shavings are carefully collected in a bandana for a special campfire Friday night.
“Spirit Stick campfire is much more than a tradition,” wrote Harkness in reflection. “After we have had an absolute blast participating in our favorite camp songs and watching or performing lots of hilarious skits, the reason behind why we are all there together becomes clear.”
Camp Sunshine Dreams exists to provide an enjoyable, stimulating and supportive camping experience for the children attending. The staff thoughtfully designed a program to meet the emotional and social, as well as physical needs of cancer kids and their siblings.
“As each cabin group rises from the bleachers and circles close around the fire, they throw the wooden stick and shavings in the flames,” wrote Harkness.
“It’s symbolic of the releasing of the collection of our camp memories and feelings,” said Hamm.
“The things that I have heard expressed at this campfire are the most beautiful things that I have ever heard in my life,” continued Harkness. “The feelings are so pure and true. There are often many tears and sobs and the tissues are thrown into the burning flames. I'll never forget watching the face of a little 8-year-old boy as the firelight illuminated his face. He was standing there, with his little face scrunched up, tears streaming down his cheeks. It's not fair for any little boy like him to have something to cry so hard about. My heart broke for him, as it does for all of the kids. I know that all of those tears were an outward expression of his grief for the many shots, spinals, bone marrows, pills, IVs, blood transfusions, surgeries, days and nights in the hospital, baldness, and feeling different, alone and left out.”
When the Friday night campfire is extinguished, the ashes are collected and safely stored in a large jar all year. The next year at camp, the ashes are thrown into the flames of the first campfire.
“This is how the spirit of each camper, and everyone who has ever been at Camp Sunshine Dreams lives on through each year of camp,” wrote Harkness. “This is especially important at our camp because, unfortunately, sometimes we do have campers that don't make it back.”
The children who do make it back year after year count on the financial support raised through the Sunshine Dreams Foundation. The nonprofit organization operates under the direction of the Camp Sunshine Dreams Board of Directors, composed of volunteers from Children’s Hospital Central California, other dedicated community members, and – of course – recruits from the growing pool of campers who have become counselors.
The Sunshine Dreams Foundation must raise a minimum of $60,000 annually to cover camp costs. “There’s not one paid position for our camp,” said Bowen. “We put 100 percent of the money raised straight to camp. People like to know that 100 percent of their donation goes to the kids.”
The Foundation secures funding from a variety of sources, including the Children's Hospital Central California Oncology Camp Fund, the Kevin & Willard Hew Memorial Golf Tournament, Rainbow Girls, the Fansler Foundation and the Central Valley Cycling Charitable Association (CVCCA). Also known as “Parker’s Team,” CVCCA came together through the efforts of a group of local cyclists inspired by a young cancer patient named Parker Fritsch. Diagnosed with leukemia at age 2, Parker celebrated his 12th birthday at Camp Sunshine Dreams this year.
You can give children like Parker more than a camping experience. You can give them at least one week every year when they feel normal, accepted and loved.
“At camp this year, one boy put into words exactly why we do camp,” said Bowen. “He said, ‘Kids tease me all year. This is the one place I don’t get teased.’ Kids like him are the reason for this camp.”
Camp Sunshine Dreams exists only because committed community members volunteer their time, and generous individuals and organizations contribute their resources.
You can help Camp Sunshine Dreams continue meeting the deep needs of children suffering from cancer – both patients and siblings. Visit the camp’s website for a wish list of items or give a secure online donation.
You may also mail your gift to:
- Camp Sunshine Dreams
- P.O. Box 28232
- Fresno, CA 93729-8232
Perhaps you have a fond camp memory of your own. Dr. Vonda Crouse, pediatric oncologist/hematologist at Children's Hospital Central California, fondly remembers the music of Camp Sunshine Dreams. It’s one of the things that draws her back year after year. “When you have 100 kids and 50 staff swelling with music,” she said. “That’s my favorite thing.”
Together we can keep the music playing and the dreams alive. Happy 25th Birthday, Camp Sunshine Dreams. May you have many, many more!