Back in 2013, New Gloucester resident Jerusha Chicoine’s 6-month-old son Foster was battling retinoblastoma, an eye cancer found most commonly in children. Through an online support group, she and her family found Camp Sunshine in Casco and attended a weeklong retreat for children and families afflicted with life-threatening illnesses.
“It was one of the most amazing experiences,” Chicoine said.
The week of fun, games and open conversations she, her husband and their three young sons spent at Camp Sunshine at no expense to them, she said, allowed them to connect with other families with children suffering from eye cancers. Even though Foster, 9, is cancer-free now, her family will always be a part of the Camp Sunshine family, she said.
Being a part of that family for Chicoine means showing up every year for the Camp Sunshine Pumpkin Festival, held for the last 10 years at L.L. Bean in Freeport. The annual event is a major sponsorship opportunity for Camp Sunshine, and secured the organization over $40,000 last weekend to continue to provide free recreation and respite for families like Chicoine’s, Camp Sunshine Executive Director Michael Katz said.
The event included a children’s costume parade, live music and food, but the highlight was the 5,000 lit pumpkins carved by students throughout the region. Freeport, Westbrook, Windham and Lake Region high schools were among those that sent pumpkin-carving volunteers in to light up the night.
“Normally within health class we have an advocacy campaign,” said Windham High School health teacher Melissa Dubois. “This year we were fortunate enough to take it outside and use it within our community.”
Windham students contributed 250 carved pumpkins to the event. Since the high schoolers know about Camp Sunshine and its work, Dubois said it wasn’t hard to get them on board.
“Nobody ever wants to deal with chronic illness,” Dubois said. “To be able to offer an opportunity for respite or family time is super fantastic and something we practice. (These are) concepts we talk about in class.”
The money raised at the event came from sponsors, food vendors and a Camp Sunshine boutique on site, where the organization’s merchandise is sold, Katz said. The proceeds will help about 700 families the camp serves a year who have sick children ranging from infants to 18-year-olds.
Camp Sunshine, which started as a seasonal program when it opened in 1984, has offered weeklong programs year round since 2001, Katz said. “Illnesses don’t take days off. We’re here whenever.”
Coping with the pandemic has led to virtual programs the past two years, with “boxes of sunshine” being sent to families at home that include arts, crafts and camp swag. Over 800 “boxes of sunshine” have been sent out to families this year alone, Katz said. Karate and yoga teachers tune in online to keep families active and entertained.
Camp Sunshine has served families from all 50 states and 27 countries, Katz said, although the majority come from New England. Forty families typically participate at a time during the weeklong activities.
“One of the best things about camp is it takes away some of that isolation families feel,” Katz said of the typical in-person activities that range from boating during summer sessions to ice skating in the winter. “(The families) are now with 39 other families who get it.”
Chicoine, who described Foster as a “big success story” due to his recovery from eye cancer, said Camp Sunshine has helped turn her son into a “very happy, very athletic 9-year-old.” When Foster goes to school with his eye prosthetic as a result of his cancer surgery, “he’s very open and honest with it,” his mother said. “That’s something that came with camp.”
More information about Camp Sunshine can be found at www.campsunshine.org.