Are You Going to Get a Vacation?
Every August, I go to Camp Sunshine for a week. It’s a volunteer commitment, but it’s so much more than that. Each year during discussions of summer plans with well-meaning people who care about me, this question – Are you going to get a vacation? – comes up. It’s often asked in a bit of a hushed voice and sometimes it starts with a “but…”, and it always follows me saying I will be at Camp Sunshine for the first week of August. I know it is not meant for me to feel uncomfortable or annoyed. I know this. But it still does.
It is true that at first glance, Camp Sunshine for a volunteer may not look like relaxing, glamorous or like a chance to unwind. And I get that this is what people often think about when they hear the word vacation. I think there are a lot of ideas out there about what vacations are – and aren’t. Vacations cost money (often, a lot of money). They happen in awesome destinations. They are breaks – escapes – from regular life. They are with people or a person you love and with whom you feel safe. They give you time to recharge, refresh and relax. You unwind when you are on a vacation. And this is all true. I do take a vacation like this – usually once a year – and it is always awesome, and I love that time.
But almost all of this is true for Camp Sunshine too. And I get that it’s not everyone’s first thought about a retreat in Maine for children with life-threatening illnesses and their families – and to explain it all could get…involved. When I go to Camp Sunshine, I am “on” most of the time. I am volunteering, and I am helping children and families affected by childhood cancer. And there are moments of sadness, frustration, confusion – and sometimes these moments cause tears and heavy feelings. After a week each year for the past seven years, I can think of a lot of examples when I was on the verge of tears or when I felt weighed down by childhood cancer.
More than this though, I can think of so many times when I was lifted up – by a child, by a parent, by another volunteer. I remember a lot of laughter and the warm feelings of hope and joy. I frequently use one of Oprah’s terms to describe Camp Sunshine: it’s JOY RISING. Everywhere you look, people of all ages are relaxed, are together, are happy. It may only be a blip for some – because when the families get home, more treatments, bills, concerns, worries, you name it await them – but it matters in that moment. It matters because it makes a difference, and it creates light, happiness, hope and gratitude.
So when people ask me this question that I don’t like, it brings up so many reminders of people and a place that I REALLY like. Camp Sunshine requires me to give – and I give generously – but I am given so much more during each visit. Camp Sunshine does not cost a lot of money, but it hits the other vacation criteria in my mind, although maybe in an unconventional way: it’s in an awesome destination (beautiful Sebago Lake!); it is for sure a break – an escape – from my regular life; I am sharing the experience with friends who feel like family I met seven years ago – I love them and I feel safe with them; and I recharge, refresh and relax while I am there. I am safely ensconced at this place where hope, light and joy are shared and multiplied. It’s life-changing, and I am a better person for having experienced it. I am lighter, more relaxed and more centered during the trip and afterwards – and I feel so incredibly lucky that I get THIS vacation each year.
Camp Sunshine provides respite, support, joy and hope to children with life-threatening illnesses and their immediate families from around the world through the various stages of their journeys. The year-round program located on Sebago Lake in Maine is free of charge to all families and includes 24-hour onsite medical and psycho-social support. Camp Sunshine also provides bereavement sessions for families who have lost a child to supported illnesses. Camp Sunshine relies on more than 2,500 volunteers annually, many of whom return year after year. The volunteers serve as camp counselors, and work in many areas of the program, including food service, arts and crafts, waterfront and a variety of other activities.