“Doctors and nurses often say the power of Camp Sunshine is as impactful in a child's cancer journey as their treatment.”— Sally Hale, Executive Director, Camp Sunshine
Before Camp Twin Lakes opened in 1993, adequate support for camp programs for children with serious illnesses, disabilities and other life challenges did not exist. Today, because of founder Doug Hertz’s vision to fill this need, therapeutic camp experiences are now provided year-round to help these campers grow in confidence and experience the joys of childhood.
In 25 years, the camp has grown to serve Georgia’s children at three medically supported campsites in Rutledge, Winder and Warm Springs, and at local children’s hospitals in metro Atlanta, according to Lindsay Bucci, marketing & communications specialist. In collaboration with a network of more than 60 non-profit camp partners, Camp Twin Lakes annually brings together more than 10,000 children and teens with diverse diagnoses, a broad range of ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, and from 158 different counties in Georgia for a shared camp experience.
“Unlike other organizations that are dedicated to programs for a specific diagnosis, Camp Twin Lakes is the only organization in Georgia dedicated to providing camp opportunities for a wide array of children facing a variety of serious illnesses and life challenges, including cancer, sickle cell disease, foster care and muscular dystrophy,” said Bucci.
“Giving each of these special needs children the opportunity to experience everything at camp that any other child who goes away to camp can experience, and for them to do that with other children who have the same issues is a gift that is incredible,” said Hertz, a member of Georgia Power’s board of directors. “These kids understand that they aren’t the only ones who are dealing with special issues and it creates a new level of confidence and strength in each of them.”
Camp curriculum provides connections for a wide range of disciplines, including science, math, art and social studies, as well creative play opportunities. “We do a lot of cooking in our outdoor teaching kitchen,” Bucci said. “Campers get to help plant and tend to crops, help with harvesting, and then experience new foods they’ve never tried before. Our goal is to educate campers about the importance of staying active and a healthy diet through hands-on learning at our teaching farms.”
Camp Twin Lakes subsidizes 70 percent of direct camp costs for every camper served; more than 72 percent of campers attend camp at no cost to their families through the Camper Scholarship Program.
From its humble beginnings 35 years ago as a one-week camp where 44 kids with cancer could be kids again, Camp Sunshine has grown exponentially. Today, more than 400 campers and 225 volunteers participate in summer camp, which takes place over two separate weeks.
Additionally, Camp Sunshine now offers programs year-round, including nine weekend camps, recreational programs and educational programs for the entire family, according to executive director Sally Hale. In 2017, Camp Sunshine provided 170 free programs to more than 900 families living throughout Georgia or whose children are being treated in Georgia.
“The programs provide hope for families with children with cancer,” said Hale, who started there as a camp nurse. “We’re changing lives. Kids tell us they don’t feel so alone. They are around friends who understand and have a similar type of experience.”
About one-quarter of past campers even come back as some of the 300 volunteers annually. John Whigham, a Southern Company Services employee in Athens, is one of those. “Growing up, Camp Sunshine was a big part of my life, and it made quite an impact. It was there that I met many of my closest friends and where many of my fondest memories come from. It is a great privilege to be able to volunteer as an adult.”
At the camp, children enjoy normal activities like swimming, fishing, boating, tennis, arts and crafts and cooking. “Doctors and nurses often say the power of Camp Sunshine is as impactful in a child’s cancer journey as their treatment. The camp is run very much like a regular camp. Kids get to choose activities they go to,” said Hale.
While camp is the biggest event, Camp Sunshine also offers a variety of programs designed for the entire family, including siblings and parents. Programs include family camps, teen retreats, sibling weekend camps and a camp for families who lost a child from cancer.