Camp Volunteer Helps Sick Kids and Their Families Let the Sunshine In

Daily Point of Light # 6080 Sep 4, 2017
Carol Tonge (far right) with Camp Sunshine volunteers./Courtesy Carol Tonge

Since 2010, Carol Tonge has volunteered with Camp Sunshine, a 5-day camp for sick children and their families. While there, parents receive support services, and children enjoy many activities and fun interactions with peers. It’s an endeavor close to Carol’s heart because it’s an opportunity to fully focus on meeting others’ needs. Points of Light talked with her about her volunteer service and the impact she’s made.

How did you first get involved with Camp Sunshine?

It was 2010 when I was asked if I would take teen-agers to a program in Maine for children with life-threatening illness. I received permission to do two sessions. The first summer, I took 18 terrified teens and two terrified adults to a camp that might be very sad and very difficult, but we were willing to do it because we felt it was an important thing to do. As it turned out, focusing on someone else gives you a new perspective. You realize you’re giving back.

At first, I was terrified. I ran into a family from New Jersey and chatted with them. This very amiable gentleman introduced me to his sons. They had an easy humor, and I wondered which one was the sick one. Then, I saw the youngest with a do-rag on his head that said, “Cancer sucks.” I knew they were willing to talk about it. This is a place where children with life-threatening illnesses are the cool ones. They’re the group — they get all the attention. Despite the fact the whole family comes, the child is the one we fuss over. Instead of diverting our eyes and looking away, we turn toward them and make a conscious attempt to meet and talk with them.

That first night, I asked my 18 teens how they were doing. They said it wasn’t hard at all. That it was really fun. I was amazed at how beautifully teenagers can adjust.

What are your overall activities with the camp?

I do the coordination for all the kids who apply. I started by just taking care of my own weeks, but that expanded to a third week. Then, I took it all over. I keep all the records and disseminate all the information. I collect the applications, review them, and send them in. I also run all the fundraising events. It takes a lot of time, but it’s a lot of fun.

My husband and I also work in the kitchen, so at any given time we’re providing food for between 200-350 people.

What is the camp experience like?

Camp Sunshine started in 1984. You think of tents and camp fires, but this is a magnificent campus that offers children the opportunity to experience a wide variety of activities. At Camp Sunshine, families are important, not just the children with the life-threatening illness. On a typical day, everyone has breakfast in a brightly-lit, well-appointed cafeteria. They sit together, and our volunteers mix with the families. You look at this dining room full of people, sitting and joking. Everyone is having a good time.

At 9 a.m., the programming starts, and this is where the camp is helpful for the family. The children separate into age groups — nursery, Tot Lot, all the way up to teens. While the children go to their groups, the parents go to groups led by psychosocial directors and doctors. Families who have never met another family with their same issues — having a child with rare blood diseases — are now sitting together in the same room.

The children swim or play outside. They paddle board, canoe and swing. On rainy days, they’re equipped for carnivals or indoor hockey. The teens are assigned to specific age groups. Some want to work with babies or toddlers. Many want to be with the 9-12 age group. They get very attached to the families and often connect with them on Facebook, email, or text.

How do you get teenagers involved, and why do you think it’s important to do so?

I’ve been told by parents that in our community, Camp Sunshine is a household word, so it’s not hard for me to get the word out. That’s what happens when kids spread the word. That first group went back to their high school in their volunteer t-shirts and talked about the amazing time they had.

The hard part now is getting everyone into the program. Other schools are involved. Camp is well loved enough that they have too many volunteers. We have to limit groups. I brought 18 teenagers the first time. I can only bring 10 now. It’s very hard to screen them, but over the years we’ve learned to identify the right ones who can put others in front of themselves. We include an expectation sheet with the applications to impress upon the kids that they’re not there for themselves.

We’ve also added in that kids do a fundraiser. You don’t have to pay to work there, but we hand them opportunities for fundraisers. They’re required to raise $250 to accompany their application. They can choose how they fundraise.

What types of activities do you plan with them?

This year is the 6th fundraising year. Between our two towns, Harvard and Bolton, we’ve just raised $100,000. This fall, I’m going to a meeting where representatives from the camp will present us with a plaque. I’m going to try to get eight years’ worth of kids to attend.

Our kids have several fundraising opportunities. They’re invited to speak at the local Catholic Church. Parishioners donate a lot of money, and the kids also serve a pancake supper at the church, with the blessing of the priest who supports Camp Sunshine, the night before Lent. In the winter, they participate in the Polar Plunge at a local ski resort. Up to two dozen kids voluntarily jump into an icy pool. They play it up really well, and many of them raise every bit of money they need by jumping into the icy waters. And, new this year, the Epilepsy Foundation is partnering with us for a clothing drive. You have to collect at least 800 bags of clothing, and they will donate $0.20 per pound of clothing you collect to your organization. Kids also do the obligatory bake sales and car washes. Our kids use Camp Sunshine as their community service, and I’m really proud of the fact that I have 10 kids doing their senior projects on the camp, too.

Why do you think volunteering, overall, is important?

Nothing else matters as much as reaching out to others, knowing you’re making a difference. I met a family from Canada several years back who wrote their joy of being at Camp Sunshine started with me because I opened up and talked with them about having an adopted child. They had originally been denied adoption, and we talked about rejection and being judged. That conversation meant everything to them. That’s why you volunteer — to make a difference for others.

Do you want to make a difference in your community like Carol? Visit All For Good to find local volunteer opportunities.

Jia Gayles