It’s water day at Camp Rising Sun. Swimsuit-clad kids are eating snow-cones and waiting in line to go down the inflatable water slide. Some are trying to send a counselor for a swim in the dunk tank, and others are playing tug-of-war, where the first few members of the losing team end up in a kiddie pool. You’d never know that this was a camp for kids that are or have suffered from cancer.
The week-long camp based out of Camp Henry Pratt in Columbus. In its 24th year now, the camp is completely free for the kids, who may bring a friend with them if space is available. It is entirely paid for by donations and volunteers. The camp is for children ages 6-16, though many campers keep coming back even after they’ve reached the age cutoff to serve as counselors.
“This is such a tight-knit group,” said Susan Faulkner, who was a member of the Junior Auxiliary the year they started the camp.
“This is a huge family for the campers, volunteers and staff. The friendships developed here stay with them forever. So many campers visit each other when they’re not at camp. They keep in contact and keep coming back. They say this is where they’ve come out of their shells.”
As one of the original volunteers, Faulkner remembers when the camp facilities weren’t quite up to par. “There was a huge hole in the boy’s bathroom floor… I was so scared one little boy was going to fall in,” she said. “But the campgrounds have been upgraded, and one of the amazing things is how much has been donated. So many people have gotten involved and it’s really been a community effort.”
“Our goal is to give the children that regular summer camp experience that they might not be able to have elsewhere. Here they can just be normal kids. They’re not different,” said camp director Allison Kizer. “It’s just a regular summer camp here.”
“The volunteers don’t know who’s who,” said Kizer, who has been involved with the camp since 2003. “The fact that some of these kids have or have had cancer is a side note. We don’t tell people, and we don’t talk about it. It’s not a focus. The focus of this is that they’re at summer camp.”
One camper, Armani “Money” Taliaferro, 16, came from Memphis with her cousin Deion Griffin, who suffers from cancer. This is Money’s first year at camp and she says she and Deion both love it. “My favorite part is the fishing. I think I caught the biggest fish!” she said. “They said it was 10 pounds.”
She said she was “kinda scared of the jet skis,” which are Deion’s favorite activity. “I like being out here,” she said. “I made a lot of friends. The best part is the snow cones… it’s hot outside. But I like arts and crafts too. I made survivor bracelets for my friends back home and a picture on a canvas, you know, just being creative.”
Bekah Rush, 18 of Yazoo City is a Counselor in Training. She has been coming to Rising Sun for the last nine years. Having suffered from acute myo leukemia as a young child, she says she loves Rising Sun because it never made her feel different. She has been in remission for 11 years.
“Back home, people always ask me so many questions. But no one ever does here. It’s hard feeling different. There are so many normal kids here, and I’m normal here. I’ve made a lot of excellent friendships- lasting, meaningful friendships. I can’t imagine not being here during the summer.”
Sara Jackson, 17, has been coming to Rising Sun since she was five years old. Her favorite activities are arts and crafts and fishing. “I like camp because it’s more fun than home,” she said. “I get to do more stuff. Sara has spent several years at St. Jude due to a brain and spine tumor. She is also in remission and is enjoying the camp experience.
“The purpose of Camp Rising Sun is to allow these children to have a traditional camp experience,” said Kizer. “To be treated just as every other child at camp. Their cancer is not our focus. Our focus is to have fun. Every camper is treated equally. This year we had 56 children at camp.”
Kizer got involved after her mother died from cancer. “Camp is a reminder to me that I don’t have problems. As long as my children are healthy, not much else matters. The children at camp are amazing and so resilient. Camp went so extremely well this year.”0