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Teen makes a difference at retreat

Paige Tobin along with camper Jake Solomon, during Camp Sunshine's Brain Tumor week. Reminder submitted photo
By Natasha Clark

Reminder Assistant Editor

LONGMEADOW Spread over 23 acres on Sebago Lake in Casco, Maine is a retreat for children with life-threatening illnesses and their families.

Camp Sunshine was created in 1984 to provide an outdoor experience where children under active treatment for cancer, kidney disease, lupus and juvenile diabetes can enjoy simply being a child.

Sixteen-year-old Paige Tobin is spending two weeks of her summer trying to make a difference in the life of another person. She thinks Camp Sunshine is the perfect place to do that.

She spends her days working with three- to five-year-olds who have brain tumors and other forms of cancer.

"I wake up at 8 a.m. and I go to breakfast. From nine to five I'm with kids," Tobin said of her daily schedule. "I just want to give back to the community. I know that I'm fortunate to grow up in a good environment. My parents are really awesome and it's great to give back to others who don't have what I have."

Camp Sunshine has week-long sessions. Each session is disease specific. There are 25 sessions and 13 are for children with cancer.

Sessions and workshops are tailored for the needs of the families.

According to Camp Sunshine's website, "these sessions may be the first opportunity the family members have had to share their fears and frustrations with others who can genuinely identify with the same experiences. The sessions provide a forum where family members can learn from each other and identify more effective means for dealing with the special issues that challenge their families daily."

The Reminder spoke with Camp Sunshine Development Director Donna Leith about its mission and the key role of volunteers like Tobin.

"We are hosting children with lupus, renal disease, transplants, brain tumors, and two rare anemias," she explained. "Our non-profit camp has a philosophy that when a child is ill, all family members suffer with the disease."

Their focus is on alleviating the strain that a life threatening illness takes not only on the sick child but also on other family members.Leith said families have an opportunity to rebuild their relationships together and meet other families facing similar challenges.

The camp has indoor and outdoor swimming, arts and crafts, a computer lab, and a number of outdoor activities, all of which are handicap accessible.

"We have an onsite physician 24 hours a day and for the emotional wellness, we have a counseling professional," added Leith.

Each family stays in their own suite. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served each day -- all at no cost to the families.

Each family is sponsored by an individual, civic group, corporation, or foundation, which enables a family to spend a week at Camp Sunshine free of charge.

Sunshine can house up to 40 families on a weekly basis and their suites comfortably fit five to six family members.

"We do not discriminate the size of the family," Leith added.

"You get to see how the illness affects [the family]. It's not only the kids that have the illness, but their siblings and their parents," Tobin said.

She wants to pursue a career in medicine and working at Camp Sunshine provides her with experience and an idea of what she may be dealing with in the future.

Tobin, a student at Longmeadow High School, is no stranger to volunteer work. Besides the countless activities she participates in at school, she has also lent a hand at the Gray House in Springfield, which has after-school programs for children in Springfield's North End.

She told The Reminder that she loves kids and was interested in getting involved in other volunteer programs. She found out about Camp Sunshine through Landmark Volunteers. Founded in 1991, Landmark is a non-profit summer service organization offering high school students the opportunity to perform community service at nationally recognized historical, cultural, and environmental or social service institutions.

"I had a friend who went through a Landmark program. I asked [Donna Lyons] a guidance counselor at school and she gave me a pamphlet [about Landmark]," Tobin said.

"We have 56 programs all over the country and the reason being is to provide high school students with the opportunity to learn about non-profits and to learn the importance of giving back to society," explained Landmark Volunteers Associate Director Patricia Beacco.

Beacco said Landmark is working with 700 students this summer. They provide host organizations like Camp Sunshine with a team of young people.

"Each group has 13 males and females, and they work for a two-week period. In turn for providing their service, [the volunteers] receive community service credit and a letter of recommendation from their leader which the student can include with their college application," Beacco said.

Beacco said they only ask that the organizations hosting the volunteers have enough work to keep the volunteers occupied for two weeks.

"Ann Barrett, our executive director, visits all of the sites to make sure that the host organization and their mission keeps with our goals," Beacco added. "It's amazing the kind of work [the volunteers] can do when they get together at the site."