Camp Sunrise Brightens Lives

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The two big yellow school buses parked by the lodge at Camp Sunrise were filled with some 70 happy campers -- it was Lake Day, and the Sidekicks were going swimming, boating, fishing and hiking.

For the excited youngsters, the buses traveled all too slowly up the grade along Highway 260 to Willow Springs Lake, 11 miles from the Christopher Creek-area camp. Once they were at the recreation site in the Apache-Sitgreaves Forest, however, it was just a matter of minutes before they were in, on and happily running around the cool blue waters of the little lake.

Amy Gold was one of the first to jump in the water. The 11-year-old Henderson, Nev., girl had flown by commercial plane to Phoenix and had taken the bus with youngsters from around the Valley, Saturday, July 10 to spend six days at the camp. Children from other areas around the state were flown to Payson by Angel Flights, private planes with volunteer pilots who donate their time to transport medical patients.

The Camp Sunrise Sidekicks who were flown to the Payson Airport were then bussed the remainder of the way, 18 miles, from the airport to the camp, the only one in the state for children with cancer and their siblings.

The camp, which is sponsored by the American Cancer Society, is also open to children in Nevada who have cancer, who have had cancer, or who are siblings of cancer patients. They range in age from 8 to 15.

Amy's brother missed the trip this year. He was spending the summer with relatives in Maryland, Amy said. Both she and her brother had been to the camp for the past two years. Adam, 14, has retinal blastoma, a form of cancer.

Amy said she wasn't about to miss Camp Sunrise Sidekicks. "I love it," she said. "It's real fun -- we don't get to do this kind of stuff back home."

As a "Sidekick," Amy understands that much of her parents' time and energy must go toward caring for her sick brother.

She and the other "Sidekicks" find that camp is a place for them to have a time of their own. It's also a place for kids with cancer to just be kids. The two groups meet separately, for a week each, in July.

There are nurses on duty at all times and a cabin specifically set aside for medications and treatment. Doctors and oncology nurses administer routine chemotherapy, perform blood counts, and handle emergencies for the cancer patients.

But it's the camp activities -- archery, horseback riding, arts and crafts, rock climbing, and hiking -- that give the children a normal camp experience. And a creek and a pond on the property offer opportunities for fishing.

"Our main goal is to provide the safest, most fun camp possible," said Melissa Lee, the camp's director. "We wanted to provide camp for the siblings, too, so they had a special place to come to. For kids with cancer, we wanted to provide the best care we could and have it as normal as possible."

Counselors, ages 19 and above, and Counselors In Training (CITs), who are ages 16 and 17, spend a lot of one-on-one time with the campers. At Willow Creek Lake that Monday, July 13, they were out in canoes and inflatable rafts, on the shore teaching fishing skills, on the trails hiking, or just hanging out, basking in the sun, and making "Monkey Fists," special friendship necklaces that all the campers wear.

Some of the counselors began their camping experience as campers themselves, and some have been volunteering since the camp was first built on 70 pine-filled acres of land in the Tonto National Forest, some three miles from Kohl's Ranch.

Lee said she has been volunteering at the camp for 16 years and got involved when she was a student at Arizona State University. She had a friend who knew the first camp director, Ann Wheat.

When Camp Sunrise first started in 1983, it was located in the White Mountains and was among the first in the nation for children with cancer. Twenty-three young cancer patients were the first to attend the summer camp. The camp was then moved to Flagstaff, and, in 1985, to its present location outside of Payson.

Camp Sunrise Sidekicks was also started in 1985.

"We just felt there was a need," Lee said. She has been the camp director since 1990, and before that, was the program director and a counselor.

Lee is a software engineer who is a stay-at-home mom living in California. She takes time off from her busy schedule to volunteer for the two weeks the camp is in session in July. Others take vacation time to volunteer at the camp, and some take days off without pay from their regular jobs.

"Volunteers do what they need to do to be here," Lee said.

April Marker, a health educator for students at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, is a second-year counselor at the camp. She spent last year as a counselor for the children with cancer. "Some counselors come for both," she said.

Marker, who specializes in health and wellness, said she likes working with kids. She said she called the American Cancer Society and told people there that she wanted to help.

"That's the neat thing," she said. "Everybody here is a volunteer."

Each camp has 27 staff people, including all the cooks and counselors.

The camp cook had a daughter who died of cancer, and many of the counselors have family members who have cancer. Some of the counselors are cancer survivors themselves.

Among the groups that donate their time is the Payson Lioness club,, which was back at the lodge Monday making sandwiches for the campers and counselors at the lake.

After the canoes and rafts came to shore, the tired swimmers lay covered in their towels trying to get warm. The hikers wandered back from the trails and the water gun enthusiasts had tired of the game.

The day was over too soon and the campers rode the buses back to Camp Sunrise, where the large, comfortable lodge and dining hall and six sleeping cabins would provide comfortable shelter for the cool night ahead.

The Camp Sunrise Sidekicks would be at the camp through Thursday. On Saturday, their brothers and sisters, who have had cancer or now have cancer began their week-long camping adventure.

At the end of the second camping session, on July 24, like camps around the country, Camp Sunrise will have Family Day. Whole families will come out to enjoy the day, have lunch, watch the Camp Sunrise Talent Show, and take their tired but happy campers home.

"The kids keep coming back," said Lee. "I guess they enjoy it so much."

The American Cancer Society camp is free of charge for all participants and depends solely on donations from the public.

For information on the camp or to donate, contact Barb Nicholas at the American Cancer Society at 602-224-0524.

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