It was Halloween and Harley Braun was at a dance. But at this dance, Braun, a petite 17-year-old with brown hair and a wide smile, wasn’t surrounded by peers at school. Instead, she was in Maine at Camp Sunshine, a not-for-profit retreat for children with life-threatening illnesses and their families.
As parents and children shimmied in their costumes around her on the dance floor, Braun spotted one mother sitting alone at a nearby table. Braun walked over to chat with the mother. What started as a casual conversation quickly turned into an intense discussion of the mother’s feelings about life after treatment. Her 12-year-old son had just been discharged from the hospital after being treated for a brain tumor. The mother had been at her son’s side almost 24 hours a day during his hospital stay, despite having three other children at home. Though out of the hospital, the son expected the same relationship to continue at home.
“She doesn’t know how to change the dynamics. They are still adjusting to life out of the hospital. As she was telling me this, she was crying and letting go,” recalled Braun. “She came off as a very strong woman. It always seemed that she knew what she was doing, but this shows that no one knows how to react.”
Camp Sunshine, said Braun, uniquely focuses on supporting the whole family in coping with these feelings as opposed to just the ill child. The camp runs week-long programs throughout the year and is free of charge. Braun has had a hand in charity work for several years. She founded the “Cause for a Cure” club, which raises money for cancer organizations, at the Ross School, where she is a senior. While researching different programs to donate to last year, Braun stumbled upon the Camp Sunshine website and decided to volunteer.
This Saturday, November 14, Braun with the help of her school will host “Camp Sunshine 2009 Carnival @ Ross” to raise money for the organization. It costs around $1,500 to help one family attend a week-long session. Braun is aiming to send at least five families to the camp and has almost reached her $7,500 goal. The Fraternal Order of Police in New York, with whom her father volunteers, made a sizable donation of $5,000. After lobbying her cause at a Ross Lower School parent association meeting, Ross parents who were complete strangers to Braun made financial contributions on Braun’s website and wrote notes of encouragement.
“I didn’t expect to have so much support. I went to the parent association meeting and when I got home that night someone donated $500,” said Braun, with her characteristic enthusiastic charm.
No doubt the Ross parents were impressed by Braun’s effusive spirit. Braun beams when talking about the week she spent volunteering at the camp over the summer. Despite the unfortunate circumstances that bring families to the camp, Braun calls it “Disneyland.” The children are paired off into ages groups to do activities. while the parents are given some much needed free time and a chance to reconnect with their spouse or other adult family member.
“Everyone wants to make each other feel better. The parents feel like they are home and the kids come to have fun. They realize that there are other children who know what they are going through,” explained Braun. “These children aren’t the typical children. They have so much more insight. They know how life is such a gift.”
Throughout the week, Braun spent her free time and meals getting to know the families. During the day, she was a camp counselor to the six to eight-year-olds. Braun loved the work so much she returned for a weekend over Halloween this year. Over the course of her Camp Sunshine experience, Braun said she formed particularly close relationships with the siblings of the ill children.
As part of her senior year at Ross, Braun is hosting the fundraiser and writing a paper on the effects a diagnosis has on the family, especially the siblings, for her senior project.
“Through my observations, I could tell the siblings wanted more attention. It is hard to say what I would do as a parent. They need people to support them as well,” noted Braun.
Braun hopes to continue working with children in the future as a psycho-social worker. She plans to study the field in college and her experiences at Camp Sunshine influenced this choice. At Camp Sunshine, Braun found she not only had a knack for helping children through difficult issues but genuinely enjoyed working with them.
“Growing up, I’ve always found that when I give back it makes me feel better. When I am with kids it makes me smile. At the camp, there was never a minute where I felt I wasn’t doing good enough,” remarked Braun. She still keeps in contact with many of the families she made connections with at the camp. Braun expects two of the families to attend the carnival on Saturday.
Braun’s carnival will offer a zany list of kid oriented activities including ring tossing, bean bag races, a toilet paper throwing contest, nail painting, magic tricks, a raffle and a bouncy castle. The Hampton Coffee Company has donated the use of their mobile coffee truck. Other local business donated the decorations and gifts for a raffle. All of the proceeds from Saturday’s event will be donated to Camp Sunshine.
Camp Sunshine 2009 Carnival @ Ross will be held at the Ross Lower Campus, at 739 Butter Lane in Bridgehampton. The Carnival will be held from 1 to 3:30 p.m. For more information call Harley Braun at (516) 313-3854. To make an online donation to Camp Sunshine visit http://www.campsunshine.org/familysponsorship/members/member.php?mem_id=494.