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.
“I think that moment was a big part of everybody’s experience, too, seeing what kids can overcome and their resilience. That allowed us to see how strong he was,” Jefferis said.
“We’re just extremely grateful for Camp Sunshine and everybody that helps make it what it is every single day, and with everybody giving and being so gracious with their donations that help these families that take on the financial burden of having kids with life-threatening diseases,” he said.
“They’re moving mountains whether they realize it or not.”
ABOUT THE HONOR
The award is sponsored by Newman’s Own, the Fisher House Foundation and Military Times. Five organizations received a combined total of $200,000, with four groups each receiving $37,500, and Camp Sunshine receiving $50,000.
This is the 18th year of the Newman’s Own award, and with the addition of this year’s recipients, 174 organizations have been recognized and received a total of more than $1.7 million. This year there were 222 entries.
The other programs receiving grants (click the links for more about each awardee):
- A fellowship program from the Dog Tag Bakery in Washington.
- A child care assistance program from the Los Angeles-based Foundation for Women Warriors.
- The ReBOOT veteran wellness program from the Boot Campaign of Tyler, Texas.
- The Hampton Roads Community Development Initiative of the Armed Services Arts Partnership in Alexandria, Virginia.
Navy Vice Adm. Kevin D. Scott, director of joint force development for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the organizations their continued efforts “are critical in supporting our men and women in uniform, past and present, and their families. ...”
“I speak on behalf of those who can’t speak, [to say] how much we greatly appreciate how many lives you’ve changed, how many lives you’ve touched, how grateful we all are for your support and dedication,” he said.
Scott said he knows from personal experience what a difference this giving spirit can make. His first son was born in 1999 with a congenital heart defect.
“I can’t express the helpless feeling when you have a loved one you can’t help, you can’t control their success or happiness in life,” he said.
During a break outside the neonatal intensive care unit, he saw a pamphlet for Fisher Houses, which are comfort homes near military and Veterans Affairs medical facilities where families can stay free of charge.
“It clicked,” he said, remembering years before as a young pilot when he flew military officials to New York for Fisher House Foundation events. Through Fisher House Foundation and its donors, these homes are built and donated to the military and VA.
“Our dollars can‘t solve or address the issues. Only wonderful organizations like the ones we’re rewarding today can and do,” said Jeffrey Smith, vice president of operations for Newman’s Own, Inc. “They’re on the front lines making a real difference for real people in their lives.”
This summer, Newman’s Own passed the $500 million mark in its charitable giving since actor and Navy veteran Paul Newman founded the company in 1982, with the intent to donate all profits to charity.
Suzie Schwartz, a trustee of the Fisher House Foundation, said it’s been a privilege to judge the competition, “and to recognize the great, great programs, the innovations, and the wonderful healing heart of the American people as they reach out and come up with great ways to continue serve the military, retired community and military families.”
Schwartz was part of a six-judge panel that selected the awardees.
David Smith, president of Sightline Media, which publishes Military Times, said he is amazed at the work of these organizations “that spring up to serve the active duty military, veteran community and families ― this crown jewel of the nation, the U.S. military.”
“We couldn’t be prouder to be here to support you and recognize you,” Smith said.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.