After seeing his wife through a long, serious illness, Gary Barron felt he needed a change. He had been president of SheerBliss Ice Cream in Florida but he also had a house in Windham, near Camp Sunshine on Sebago Lake. When the post of executive director opened up at the camp, which provides free camping for seriously ill children and their families, he thought it might be a good fit, given his management experience and his personal background dealing with a serious illness in the family. The position carries a $130,000 salary. Camp Sunshine relies solely on contributions, has 15 paid employees, 70 to 80 volunteers each week and an annual operating budget of $5 million and assets of roughly $20 million.
Q. What appealed to you about this job?
A. I’ve had a home in Windham since 2005 and Camp Sunshine has always been an icon in the area. Whenever I would go into a supermarket or a store there would always be a poster or a sign about Camp Sunshine. It was just something that made me feel proud to live in the community. And I was looking for a change in profession and in venue. My wife passed away three years ago; it was time to make a change. As I’m originally from Newton, Massachusetts, and went to camp in Maine and prep school in Maine, it made me feel as though Maine was the place for me to settle.
Q. What’s the biggest challenge facing the operation?
A. The nice thing is, Camp Sunshine is celebrating its 30th year of operation, and the challenge is to keep Camp Sunshine in the forefront of people’s minds when they’re looking for their child and the rest of their family to get the kind of respite retreat that the camp offers. We’re always challenged with the facility meeting the highest level of care and that the programming remains unique enough to attract the families.
Q. What kind of programs do you offer to seriously ill children and their families?
A. One of things I hear literally every week is the parents who say they’re going through this experience and feeling very alone. What Camp Sunshine tries to do is bring families that have similar circumstances together so they build a community and share ideas and learn. We encourage a dialogue among the families so they no longer have that feeling of being alone.
The pillar of Camp Sunshine is we are family-focused and we care as much for the rest of the family as we do for the ill child. So many families have a child with a specific illness, as well as two or three or four other children and when all the attention is focused on one child, some of the other children may feel as though they’re left behind. We try to make sure that, at least for the time they’re at camp, they regroup as a family and understand what their particular circumstance is and learn from other families.
As an example, on Wednesday nights, that’s dinner night where the children go off with their counselors and do an overnight together and the parents get a white tablecloth dinner together. It’s the identical meal you would have at Thanksgiving, with turkey, cranberry, stuffing – it’s a dinner of thanksgiving. The families sit at tables together, the newbies meet the families that have come back to return for an additional visit and they learn from each other and get email addresses and phone numbers and share stories. The new folks are learning, through the experience of others, how to cope. It’s an amazing evening. I refer to it as date night because many parents say it’s the first time they’ve had in a year or two or more to have a dinner alone.
Q. How hard is it to get close to the families, knowing their child might not make it?
A. Just a couple of days ago, I saw a family during breakfast and I turned to their daughter and asked if she was having a good time. This is a young woman who has a brain tumor and was having a very rough go of it. She answered my question by lunging at me and throwing her arms around me and saying, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
And it makes it all worthwhile and it confirms I’m in the right place. Camp Sunshine is where the magic happens.
Q. What did your wife die from and how did going through that illness with her influence what you do at Camp Sunshine?
A. She passed away from an auto-immune disease called scleroderma. It was a long battle, approximately 30 years. Living with someone living with an illness that may kill them opens your eyes to all things and how best to care for them.
I am walking the walk. Going through the experience with my wife – and I have a 28-year-old daughter who never knew her mother without this illness – really sensitizes you.
The reality is you want to be involved with and care for each family. We are there to help them pull together and learn from each other how best to cope. Thirty years of operations has shown that we do this task exceptionally well.
Q. Most Maine camps operate only in the summer, but you’re open year-round. How does that work?
A. We have a little bit of down time in the fall and the some of the winter, just for maintenance reasons and thinking ahead to the program for the following spring and summer. But we do operate year-round. We have winter sessions. We have a large volleyball court that become the ice skating rink and a long walkway that goes down to the lower campus and we pad the walkway and that becomes a luge or toboggan run and we have a large indoor heated swimming pool that we use during the winter and the summer.
Q. What’s your focus going to be on?
A. My personal focus will be on helping to create increased awareness of Camp Sunshine and making sure we have the financial stability and ability to increase some programing and do some additional things. We have had families enjoy their time at Camp Sunshine from 48 states and 24 countries. Over 43,000 families have come to Camp Sunshine. Many times those families have three or four other kids. It’s like running a hotel, a restaurant and a camp, all at the same time, and each week we get 75 to 80 volunteers who commit themselves to staying at the camp. Many who have gone through Camp Sunshine with an ill child in the past, return to camp as a volunteer. It’s a perfect example of “pay it forward.”
Q. How about new programs?
A. We took a great step this month when we enjoyed the visit of the four Navy Seals who came to Camp Sunshine, spent time with us and the families, getting a good sense of what we do and the impact we make on the children and the families (the Seals swam the length of Sebago Lake – 13 miles – and raised $100,000 for the camp). It’s their desire for the camp to conduct a program to support the children of military families who have a life-threatening illness. We’ve raised over $200,000 for this program.