Sunrise campers in Israel enjoy the outdoors and feel the joys of friendship and freedom. Sunrise campers in Israel enjoy the outdoors and feel the joys of friendship and freedom. Sunrise campers in Israel enjoy the outdoors and feel the joys of friendship and freedom. (Photo: Sunrise Association)

For kids with cancer, a special camp offers a return to childhood

Sunrise Day Camp ensures children don't lose their sense of joy and wonder, despite their illness.

You're 10 years old, it's a beautiful summer day, and your friends are outside playing basketball. But you can't join them because your immune system is suppressed and you can't risk getting sick.

You're 3 years old, and you've never met other children outside of the hospital, where you spend most of your time.

Stories like these are everywhere in the world of pediatric cancer. Often isolated from the normal activities of childhood, children with cancer rarely have a chance to see beyond their homes, hospitals and doctors’ offices.

Arnie Preminger, a veteran summer camp operator and nonprofit manager in New York, wanted to give these children a dose of childhood that cancer had taken from them. He, along with a community center in Oceanside, N.Y., founded Sunrise Day Camps in 2006 to make it possible for children to enjoy a summer filled with exciting daily activities, enduring friendships and laughter, while paying careful attention to their special medical and emotional needs. The camp now has eight locations in the U.S. and in Israel, all offering services to children 3 1/2 to 6 years old and their siblings, free of charge.

“We believe that children should come home and get to talk about camp, not chemotherapy,” said Will Eastman, director of community engagement for the Sunrise Association. “We’re not researchers or doctors. We are people who bring joy to these kids and try to let them have a break from what they’re going through."

At Sunrise, siblings – who often feel ignored and restricted – are free to socialize with friends in a normal, fun way while escaping the constant worry and uncertainty of having an ill brother or sister. It also helps them better understand and cope with their sibling’s illness and their own feelings.

At Sunrise, children get a break from the demanding and scary world of cancer treatment.

At Sunrise, children get a break from the demanding and scary world of cancer treatment. (Photo: Sunrise Association)

Each of Sunrise Day Camps' grounds includes lush woods, grassy hills, open meadows and private swim complexes. In addition to its eight day camp locations (five in the U.S. and three in Israel), Sunrise also runs 42 weekly in-hospital programs in pediatric cancer units, for children who cannot leave the hospital. They do this through the generosity of donors.

One of the benchmarks of Sunrise's mission is its commitment to diversity. Sunrise welcomes children and families of all backgrounds. For example, across all three of Sunrise's Israel camps, more than 30% of children are Arab. Others come from Muslim, Christian, Bedouin, Jewish and Ethiopian families.

"At Sunrise, we focus on what we have in common, not how we are different," Eastman said.

Eastman is proud of how inclusive and diverse each camp is and how it helps the children build a community of friends, which is important, as cancer can leave children feeling isolated. Sunrise helps campers build a community of friends, which is important, as cancer can leave children feeling isolated. (Photo: Sunrise Association)

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For kids with cancer, a special camp offers a return to childhood
Sunrise Day Camps in the U.S. and Israel ensures children don't lose their sense of joy and wonder, despite their illness.