My wife, Kayla, was only seven years old when she lost her sister to cancer. As a way to honor her sister’s memory, she attended a special camp every summer growing up, called Camp Sunshine Dreams.
The annual, week-long camp—nestled along the shore of Huntington Lake, northeast of Fresno, Calif.—provides a place for kids with cancer and their siblings to just be kids while they are dealing with the very difficult experiences and circumstances of pediatric cancer. After Kayla aged out of being a camper, she returned as a teenager for several years to work as a camp counselor.
Last summer, Kayla wanted to return to camp as a volunteer, and asked if I’d be interested in joining her. I jumped at the opportunity—especially to spend time at a place that I knew meant so much to her.
For the week, I worked as a counselor for a group of seven junior-high students—a mix of kids either going through treatment or who had recently finished treatment—and their siblings. We did all kinds of classic camp stuff - we sang songs, went canoeing on the lake, and a big dance toward the end of the week where everyone dressed up for this year’s theme, “Wonderland.”
The camp really provides a healing space for every camper. One of my favorite memories from the week was something they call the “spirit stick.” All the kids spread out across the campground to sit in small circles and talk about their experience with cancer. The kid holding the spirit stick gets to talk while the others listen. The one sharing their story also gets to shave down the stick and puts the shavings into a handkerchief. After everyone has had a chance to talk, each group takes the shavings and throws them in a fire where everyone is gathered. It’s a cathartic, tangible way for the kids to process what they’re going through.