Cancer robbed Zachary Levine of a summer. Then just five years old, he spent the warm months of 2016 in and out of Memorial Sloan Kettering, where he underwent aggressive treatment for osteosarcoma, a rare bone cancer.
Thankfully, by the next spring, Zachary’s scans were clear, and he was back to being a kid.
As another summer fast approached, his mom, Capron, wanted to give Zachary a season full of play, swimming, and other outdoor fun away from the family home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
“I really wanted him to have a true kid’s summer experience, but we were really limited by what he could do,” says Ms. Levine. “He needed constant supervision and additional procedures, so I couldn’t send him away.”
Zachary’s child life therapists at MSK — who help children adjust to the challenges of life in the hospital — suggested that the family look into Sunrise Association. The organization sponsors summer day camps for children with cancer as well as their siblings.
The first Sunrise Association Day Camp opened on Long Island in 2006. Today, there are eight camps: three in New York near MSK, two on the East Coast in Baltimore and Atlanta, and three in Israel. The camps are funded by donors and thus free for all participants.
At Sunrise camps, kids can take part in all the fun of a traditional summer camp experience: arts and crafts, swimming, sports, drama class, and more. Some facilities even boast ropes courses, rock-climbing walls, and wheelchair-accessible treehouses. Illness is rarely mentioned.
“Camp is almost like holy ground,” says Bonnie Flatow, Senior Vice President for Hospital and Community Services at Sunrise Association. “When I see children running around without that IV pole, so free and just being children, it’s almost as powerful as the medicine itself.”
As soon as campers get picked up for the day, counselors greet them and camp songs begin.
“The second those feet get on the bus, the camp day has started,” says Ms. Flatow.
Ms. Levine had planned to send Zachary and his younger sister, Olivia, to Sunrise on Long Island for two weeks in the summer of 2017. But the kids loved camp so much that they insisted on staying longer.
“When they learned we weren’t sending them for the whole summer, they both started crying,” Ms. Levine recalls with a laugh.
The camp’s mission buoys one of MSK’s goals: to support an entire family when a child has cancer. It complements MSK’s SIBS (Specially Important Brothers and Sisters) program, which recognizes the siblings of sick children and helps them understand the illness, treatment, and their feelings.
At camp, Zachary and Olivia both love swimming, creating arts and crafts, singing songs, and playing with their friends.
“Everybody there is in the same boat, but you would never know it,” Ms. Levine says.
Where Kids Can Be Kids
“It’s almost as if we tapped into something magical that there is such a need for,” says Ms. Flatow, who spent 24 years working as a technician in an MSK biochemistry lab prior to joining Sunrise.
Each year, Ms. Flatow travels to different hospitals to meet pediatric oncologists and key hospital staff, who then refer children to Sunrise.
For children unable to leave the hospital for camp, camp comes to them. The Sunrise Association also runs Sunrise on Wheels, a year-round program that brings the magic of camp to a child’s bedside. Specially trained volunteers share toys, games, puzzles, and craft projects with participants. Every effort is made to include all children: For those who are immuno-compromised, for example, staffers wheel packaged toys and games into the room.
“Sunrise on Wheels was supposed to be a very simple play program to entertain a child who’s having a difficult day,” Ms. Flatow says. “But what we’ve found is that there’s relationship building, and the kids look forward to seeing the volunteers every week.”
And when kids are able to come to day camp, there is no pressure to commit for the entire summer — they can come for as a few or as many days as they’d like.
“The day camp experience is about normalcy, about children just being children. It is fluid enough to respond to a family’s needs and how the patient is feeling,” says Nina Pickett, Senior Director of Pediatrics at MSK and Inaugural Board Chair of the Sunrise Association.
A Break from the Ordinary
In its first year, Sunrise welcomed 97 campers. Today, that same site on Long Island has 730 children registered for this summer. Across all eight sites, there are close to 2,000 registrants, with more to come as new camps are developed nationwide.
Ms. Levine says that Sunrise provides her children with an escape, not only from city living but also from the grueling routine of treatment.
“I wanted them both to go out and experience a day in the woods and feel untethered,” she says.
While it can be challenging sending Zachary away from home after what he and his family have been through, Ms. Levine finds comfort in the care that Sunrise provides.
“I’m relieved to give him that independence, and I feel that this is a really safe place,” she says. “It’s just enough to let him have that bit of freedom, but parents know that their kids are taken care of.”