Excitement, Empowerment, and Raising Much Needed Funds
By Zarah Kavarana
A little girl clings on to her mother’s hand as the two cross the finish line at the third annual Sunrise Day Camp fundraising walk-a-thon, SunriseWALKS. “I did it!,” she beams, one by one high-fiving camp counselors and event helpers. In her excitement, the blue bandana tied over her tiny bald head nearly knocks off.
Over 120 participants arrived at the Henry Kaufmann Campgrounds in Pearl River early on Sunday, June 14 for the walk, showing their support for Sunrise and its children. Nearly $110,000 was raised at the event.
Sunrise Day Camp is the only day camp in the world for children with cancer and their siblings. It functions just like any other camp, making traditional activities like arts and crafts, swimming and sports available to campers in a safe setting where they can meet children their own age who have endured similar struggles.
Children ages 3 1/2 to 16 years are invited to attend – completely free of charge. Sunrise is able to absorb a $6,000 fee per camper by hosting multiple fundraising events, like SunriseWALKS throughout the year.
“I think that it’s really important to understand that cancer bankrupts families,” said Sunrise Camp Director and Associate Executive Director of the Rosenthal JCC, Sandy Haft. “It crushes them not only emotionally, but economically.”
With every dollar raised, Sunrise is able to ease some financial burden for families of children with cancer and simultaneously create some normalcy in their lives.
The camp runs for 7 1/2 weeks, but each child’s schedule is flexible based on their personal medical needs. Sunrise staff is always understanding about campers missing a day if they don’t feel well or have doctor’s visits scheduled.
Two nurses are on site every day, ready to care for campers appropriately, and a team of friendly counselors facilitate activities to make the experience enjoyable.
Terence Hughes, a former councilor and rising junior at Dartmouth College returned for Sunday’s event. He hopes to someday become a doctor and discussed how the Sunrise experience has been equally beneficial for him as it has for campers.
“I learned that treatment extends far beyond the hospital,” said Terence. “What we’re doing here emotionally is just as valid as different types of bio medicine and medical procedures.”
Campers come to the Pearl River campgrounds from near and far with the help of a free bus service. Sunrise families are throughout Manhattan, the Bronx, Southern Connecticut, Northern New Jersey, as well as Westchester, Rockland and Orange counties.
This summer, 198 children have registered for camp.
Sunday’s event kicked off with a delicious breakfast catered by Bristal Assisted Living to energize participants before they embarked on a one-mile walk around the campgrounds. Carnival style games and bouncy houses welcomed back walkers. There was free popcorn, cotton candy and ice cream for all to enjoy, while a DJ kept the crowd dancing.
Mother of three Sunrise campers, Lakaya Sewer, was chosen to be the speaker for the event. She lost her job soon after her oldest son, 15-year-old Ky-mani was diagnosed with brain cancer two years ago. Since then he has undergone surgery, but surgeons determined that his tumor was better off left in because of its position, afraid that taking it out might bring on other issues.
Ky-mani is taking life day by day. His mother says that Sunrise has become an important part of his life, having met many friends and received the support of camp leaders. She noted that Sunrise has not failed to let her down either.
“For me, being pushed into the cancer world was really hard because you no longer feel like you’re living a normal life,” said Sewer. “Sunrise is a big, giant family with people who understand my story. It gives me peace that I’m not alone in this.”
Michele Anastasia also attended the event with her two Sunrise sons, four-year-old Giancarlo and eight-year-old Santino, who was diagnosed with Leukemia in early 2014. After a year of endless hospital visits, he is accepting treatments well and progressing nicely.
Just four days before camp started last year, Anastasia’s home burned down and the family lost everything. Sunrise was quick to step up, providing them with t-shirts and taking care of the kids’ lunches and snacks on camp days.
“After last year, everything’s a piece of cake,” said Anastasia. “But it’s comforting to come here and know that everyone has a story of their own. Sunrise has been there and will be there for all of us.”
Ellie Aronowitz, Executive Director of the Rosenthal JCC of Northern Westchester, said that Sunrise is not just a community, but a family.
“This is indeed a family of people who care,” she said. “It’s a place of belonging and inclusiveness. I think we become a part of families, children’s’, parents’ lives as they become enmeshed in our hearts forever. Once you become a part of Sunrise Day Camp, you become a lifer.”
Sunrise Day Camp is a joint program of the Friedberg JCC and the Rosenthal JCC, beneficiary agencies of the UJA-Federation of New York.
It is a part of the Sunrise Association, which works bring the joys of childhood to children with cancer. The camp has three other locations–one on Long Island and two in Israel. The Pearl River location is the newest location.
The Sunrise Association also offers Sunrise on Wheels, an in-hospital program that works with nine New York and New Jersey metropolitan hospitals to make stays more enjoyable for children.
“The work we do here is not a labor of love,” said Haft. “It’s truly love.”