For Marine Staff Sgt. Anthony Jefferis and his wife, Melissa, their 5-year-old son Taylor’s life-threatening cancer is a reality they live with every minute, while juggling work, parenting and medical appointments, and continually working to provide the best quality of life possible for both their children.
So a week’s retreat in August along the shores of Maine’s Lake Sebago thanks to Camp Sunshine was a restful, recharging, inspirational and just plain fun experience for the entire family, Jefferis said. It provided a rare opportunity for the Jefferis family and for other families who have children with life-threatening illnesses.
“We spent an entire week ― not to forget what we’re going through,” he said, but to recharge and refuel for their stressful life. At this camp, he said, “we were able to have days when there were 20 minutes to three hours without having cancer being a limiting factor,” he said.
Also very important: All their expenses were paid ― including the flight to Maine from California, where he is stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. The activities, the lodging, the meals, the entertainment, were all provided, along with on-site medical attention if needed.
About 40 military families came to Camp Sunshine out of 660 who visited in 2016. And the group will be able to continue its efforts thanks in part to a $50,000 award from Newman’s Own, the largest of grants totaling $200,000 given out Wednesday in a Pentagon ceremony. That money will enable the camp to bring 20 military families with children who have life-threatening diseases, free of charge.
“Since 2014, we have made a conscious decision to try to provide awareness and outreach to military families that have a child with a life-threatening illness,” said Michael Katz, executive director of Camp Sunshine. “We can think of no more [stressful situation for a family] than having an ill child while having a parent deployed or facing the possibility of deployment,” he said.
There are usually about 23 camp sessions a year, each one illness-specific, and each session hosts about 40 families. Donors foot the bill, at a cost of about $2,500 for each family, Katz said.
“It’s funding like this Newman’s Own award that makes it happen,” he said.
The Marine family’s particular week at Camp Sunshine was an “oncology week,” with other families going through a similar situation. That was one of the big benefits, Jefferis said.
The Camp Sunshine sessions are designed to give families an opportunity “just to be a family,” Katz said. The illness of a child affects the entire family, and Camp Sunshine offers activities for each member ― parents, siblings, and the child who is ill. “It gives them the opportunity to put aside that illness for even a short time, and just be a family.”
“There’s always a huge weight that you carry whenever you’re walking around every single day being a caregiver for a kid that you don’t know if they’re going to see their next birthday,” said Jefferis. “It’s humbling knowing we’re not alone. At this camp we were with other parents who are going through the exact same thing. We got a lot of resources out of it. It was really an experience for us.”
Their 5-year-old son Taylor has an extremely rare form of central nervous system cancer, Jefferis said. There is no cure, and no further treatment doctors can give him without harming him, Jefferis said. Doctors can’t give him any more radiation treatments.
A highlight of their week was a talent show, featuring children showing off their various talents, Jefferis said.
“Taylor didn’t want to do the talent show. That’s fine. Then all of a sudden, he said he wanted to walk like everybody else. It was, ‘These kids have cancer and they walk. I want to walk, too.’
“So Taylor walked across the stage during the talent show, all by himself, without his walker. The entire crowd, all the kids, all the parents, all the volunteers, everybody was just standing up, screaming, and joyous,” Jefferis said.