Children struggling with cancer and treatment may have thought they had to miss out on summer camp if they couldn’t go to a sleepaway camp. But the new Aurora Day Camp, part of the Sunrise Association, brought free, fun-filled days to them and their siblings all summer. Until this week.
Aurora Day Camp, hosted by the Davis Academy Lower School, began its inaugural year on June 11 with 90 campers, and ended July 25.
The camp is for ages 3 ½ to 16 and offered open enrollment, accepting children for a day, a week, or 6 ½ weeks. There were about 35 to 45 campers a day.
It was free and had an on-site medical director, pediatric oncologist, two nurses and a wellness center.
Camp offered “high-energy” and “low-energy” activities to fit the needs of each camper.
Activities were led by specialists and included music, creative writing, dance, art, drama, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), field activities and sports.
“We want to make sure our kids are having the opportunity to select and design how they want to spend their day,” said Camp Director Sami Tanenbaum. Camp is different each day so that children never feel like they are missing out if they cannot attend, Tanenbaum said.
“What is really special about this program is that it is a very normative environment for the campers. … It is incredible to see the friends that they make, and they are no longer defined by the cancer that has become part of their life; that they are here, and they are just kids,” said Executive Director Greg Hill.
Camp was from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Upon arrival, campers participated in icebreaker activities. To accommodate parent’s schedules, campers could be dropped off at 7:30 a.m. and leave at 6:30 p.m., with supervision from the unit heads, counselors and other staff.
Camp was a time for siblings to play and reconnect, an opportunity they may not have at home because of other circumstances or stressors related to illness.
About sibling interaction, Tanenbaum said, “It’s been wonderful. They’re very sweet with each other; they are protective of one another. They like to seek each other out in the middle of the day, whether it’s having lunch with each other or taking a quick stroll and hanging out in the nature sanctuary.”
Nathalia Frykman, mother of 4-year-old Erin, sees her daughter as “much happier and very excited to make friends and to socialize and to actually interact with children who are going through the same hard times as her.”
Frykman continued, “She was very scared about the lack of hair, because she lost her hair. So, she was afraid people wouldn’t play with her. And here she is able to feel much more comfortable knowing that everybody understands.” Erin’s favorite activities are arts-and-crafts and dance. Nathalia and her husband David Frykman find it comforting that there is a medical team at camp.
Parents already have enough expenses and worries, and bringing their child to camp is a non-negotiable at Aurora.
“Treatments are also very expensive, so knowing that we’re able to come here and bring her without having to worry about payments and everything—it’s a great blessing. It’s just one less thing to worry about,” Frykman said.
Misae Okada, mother of 7-year-old Kano, has seen a shift in her daughter since starting camp. “She changed so much. She’s more outspoken; she’s louder; I feel she’s more confident and she’s overall happy.”
And as a mother, it’s “such a relief, seeing your child happy,” Okada said. Kano’s favorite activities are dancing and cartwheeling.
Camp counselor Elye Robinovitz, 17, said about the campers, “I see a lot of happiness. Even though they have gone through so much, to still come out and still be happy and enjoying everything that life has to offer.”
Arnie Preminger, former president and CEO of the Barry and Florence Friedberg JCC in Oceanside, N.Y., launched Sunrise Day Camp in 2006. Sunrise Association expanded to three locations in New York, three in Israel, and Horizon Day Camp in Baltimore, Md. Atlanta is the eighth location for Aurora Day Camp.
“We chose Atlanta because of the large pediatric cancer community and a very philanthropic community,” Hill said. “A large number of children can really take advantage of our program—and that’s why we’re here,” he continued.
Hill was looking for a long-term partnership when picking the location for the camp and approached schools to host it. “Davis Academy stepped forward and said ‘wow, this is a wonderful camp, we have the space, we would love to talk to you about it,’” Hill said.
Marketing Vice President Judy Fishkind said that the camp strives every day to “bring back the magic of childhood to children with cancer.”
Hill said the response from campers and parents has only been positive and said, “this is an incredible program and it’s an incredible gift to the pediatric cancer community.”