26 years ago yesterday, my niece and goddaughter, Marie Nicole, was born. And four years later, she developed ALL – acute lymphocytic leukemia. Marie was born beautiful – with a huge engaging smile, a glorious mane of golden-streaked hair, and gigantic gray-green eyes.
When she got sick, she turned pale as a sheet of paper and because she was getting masses of chemotherapy poured into her chest, she lost her hair, too. But she never lost that smile – and maybe that’s what pulled her through.
When Marie got sick, my sister Mary Lou also had a 7 year old (Carolyn), 5 year old (Amy) and 1 year old (Christy), and the hospital where Marie was being treated was about 2 hours away from their house in a small farming community located outside Northampton, Massachusetts. I honestly have no idea how she & Pete managed, but I do remember when they were invited to go to Camp Sunshine on Sebago Lake in Maine that fall, it was like a light came on for the family.
Camp Sunshine was started by Dr. Larry and Anne Gould, who decided 17 years ago to donate the facilities and personnel of their gorgeous Point Sebago Resort for four weeks every year to families with children suffering from life-threatening illnesses. The camp was and is free to every family – and it became so popular that in 2001, Anna and Larry donated 23 acres for a permanent, year-round facility to host 1,200 families a year. Camp Sunshine allows families undergoing almost unthinkable stress to have a week of normalcy, fun, relaxation and comfort, surrounded by other families who are going through the exact same thing – and it’s changed the lives of more than 30,000 people over the years.
“For us, it was incredibly emotional,” my sister says, “because you’re surrounded by people who are using all their expertise, knowledge and heart to make life better for you. You come away knowing that you can handle what’s in front of you because of what they have given you.”
Almost every person working at the camp is a volunteer (2,000 every year!) and every kid at the camp (not just the sick child) is treated like he or she is really special. The mission of Camp Sunshine is to strengthen the whole family, and that is what is so healing. Parents, siblings and the sick child are all there to have fun, and the volunteers bend over backwards to offer sports, crafts, costume dance parties, shows, volleyball, kayaking, fishing, icebreakers, and socials. For the kids, it’s like heaven with dozens of counselors adoring them, and for parents, it’s a chance to talk, unwind, be a normal family, and be taken care of.
My niece Carolyn writes, “I think that one good thing, maybe the only good thing, about Marie’s being sick is that it opened my family’s eyes to the amazing, devoted, selfless, generous capabilities of people to love and give to people they don’t even know.” She, Marie and Christy have all volunteered there, my sister is still a member, and the family can’t say enough about what it meant in their darkest hour to have Camp Sunshine in their life.
Marie made it through her leukemia, was Homecoming Queen, graduated with highest honors, went to Swarthmore College, and now is working in Washington, D.C. Like her sisters, she’s beautiful, compassionate and incredible – full of love and sunshine.