Things are really happening at Camp Sunshine in Casco. This marks the 26th year for this one-of-a-kind lakeside retreat for families with children facing life-threatening illnesses.

The spirit of growth and hope is alive, and Camp Sunshine is defying a national trend. Because of the long recession, many nonprofits and charitable organizations are scaling back or facing the hard reality of closing up shop. Not so here. Pending permits, the 23-acre campus hopes to add 7,000 square feet – three separate units – of new volunteer housing space. Funded by donations and grass-roots fundraising, there’s plenty of support for the camp’s mission.

The camp program is a week’s stay on Sebago Lake and is free for all who attend. A typical stay includes swimming, boating and games, and complete medical care is also available.

“We have over 2,000 volunteers each year helping out,” said executive director Matthew M. Hoidal. “They contribute in excess of 70,000 hours of time. The importance of volunteers is great. They enhance the program for those currently participating. They add tremendous depth.”

Hoidal said they’ve outgrown the current volunteer housing units. To give back some of what they received, families who originally came as guests often return as volunteers and stay on site.

“Among the things most helpful for a family is to come to know people who are further down the road from where they are on the illness journey,” said Nancy Cincotta, camp psychosocial director. “Camp Sunshine is the perfect environment to foster those connections, whether in the population of children with cancer, FA (Franconi anemia), lupus or any of the illnesses we serve, or for bereaved families.

“Currently there are many families who choose to volunteer, yet it poses an interesting challenge. For each room we assign to a family that wants to volunteer, we add more children to the program, and lose a housing unit for additional volunteers.”

About 1,000 ill kids walk through the doors here each year, some with rare disorders. Fifteen years ago, the Toth family brought their 2 year-old daughter recently diagnosed with cancer. The young girl triumphed and pulled through. Since then the whole family has returned every year to reach out to others in similar situations. The Toths are one group likely to inhabit the proposed new housing.

“We live in Virginia,” said Gail Toth. “We just have to get ourselves up to camp. Sometimes we drive, sometimes we fly. While we’re there, there are no costs to us at all. All our meals and everything are taken care of, as it is for all volunteers. We look forward to it; we try to plan our summers around a trip up to camp.”

It’s not lost on the Toths that the reason they were able to initially attend was through the volunteer service of others. In a real sense of coming full circle, their once-ill daughter, now 17, assists families and serves as living proof that cancer is not always a death sentence.

The Toths heard about Camp Sunshine thanks to a posting in Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where their daughter was receiving treatment. They were told they should apply and were pleasantly surprised to learn the program along the shores of Sebago Lake was free.

They’ve since taken that spirit back to their home state of Virginia.

“We have started fundraising for camp,” said Toth. “For the last three years we’ve organized a polar dip; we’ve raised over $73,000 for Sunshine.”

The proposed volunteer housing expansion is likely to stand as living proof that a time-out on a beautiful Maine lake can reap rewards for tired families suffering through such unthinkable plights as childhood cancer.

“The future of Camp Sunshine is filled with the potential of families helping families in a greater way,” Cincotta said. “Sometimes, when you build the physical structure, you are only not only building a building, but also laying a foundation of hope that will truly inspire great things to come.”

 

Don Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Raymond. He can be reached at: [email protected]