Student Feature: “The Happiest Place on Earth”

The Happiest Place on Earth

Thoughts about the Mount student volunteer trip experience to “Camp Sunshine,” which provides comfort, hope, and support to children with life-threatening illnesses and their families in a retreat environment

By Grace Mittenzwei ’19

It all started on a cold December morning after a lengthy, heart-warming conversation the previous night with one of my best friends, Maria. She told me about an interesting phone call she had with a young girl she met while volunteering at Camp Sunshine. She explained that Camp Sunshine was a retreat for children with life-threatening illnesses and their families in Casco, Maine. The children who attend the camp have different ailments ranging from cancers to organ transplants. The purpose of the camp is to provide comfort, hope, and support to the children and their families in a retreat environment. I thought it would be a depressing place, but Maria’s enthusiasm conveyed an entirely different emotion. She explained to me that it was the “happiest place on Earth.” Her continuous raving caused me to want to discover and experience Camp Sunshine for myself.

New adventures and spreading Dominican values

I was so inspired that the morning following my conversation with Maria, I approached Sister Lena Picillo, OP, our Director of Campus Ministry at MSDA. Sister Lena was fascinated by the potential volunteer idea. I remember her saying “of all the mission trips I’ve done, I have never done a trip like this before.” This piqued my interest — we would be going on a new adventure and spreading Dominican values to a community foreign to us. After our initial conversation, Sister Lena and I began to organize. We initially wanted to volunteer for an entire week in the summer, but when we called in January, every week was already filled with volunteers. The next best option was to volunteer for the camp’s Halloween weekend, which was October 26-29, 2018. With these dates set, our next step was to engage the student body, and to our surprise, 20 students were interested in volunteering. With such a large response, Sister Lena and I were forced to create an application process to determine who would attend. In the end, we were allowed to bring seven people in total: Sister Lena, Sister Eleanor, OP, me, plus 4 additional students, Nicole Espinal ’19, Morgan Gomis ’19, Madison Otterbein ’20, and Grace Murphy ’20.

On the morning of our trip, Thursday, October 25, there was a mix of emotions among the group, including nervousness and excitement! I had a million questions. What will camp be like? What will the children be like? Will it be the wonderful happy place I have heard about? In our seven-hour drive, more questions formed. After our arrival in Portland, Maine and checking into our hotel, we ate dinner and prayed for the powerful weekend ahead of us. When Friday morning rolled around, the girls and I could barely contain our excitement because today was finally the day we are able to serve at Camp Sunshine. I was especially excited because I would finally be able to have all my questions answered. Arriving at camp was a surreal moment for Sister Lena and me as we spent almost a year planning this trip and it was finally coming to life.

Making the families feel special

The session of camp we attended was called “The Great Pumpkin Weekend.” It consisted of about twenty families and fifty volunteers. Once we settled into our rooms, the camp director led a lengthy and profound orientation to set expectations and the reality of what we were involved with. After the orientation, the camp staff did not hesitate to immediately put the volunteers to work. Our first task was to welcome the incoming families and help them settle into their rooms before dinner. At dinner, all the volunteers followed the unwritten meal rules: the families receive their meal before the volunteers, there must be at least one volunteer eating with a family, and do whatever you can to make the parent’s job easier. These acts of courtesy make the families feel special and pampered. Mealtime was one of my favorite parts of the camp, not only because the food was delicious, but because I was able to connect to the families through meaningful conversations. Some of the families I sat with talked about their child’s illness and others talked about light-hearted topics like taking advantage of the wonders in the nearby cities or our love for the movie “Bewitched.” I was thankful I had the opportunity to sit with the families because these times were some of the few moments parents could spend time with their children during the busy day. The entire weekend consisted of a packed schedule for both the families and the volunteers, with breakfast at 7:45 am and ending our day at 9:30 pm. The days actually felt short because we all genuinely enjoyed what we were doing.

Leaving my comfort zone

Our group from MSDA was split up and worked with all age ranges at the camp. Sister Lena, Morgan, and I worked in the Tot Lot/Nursery. These young children were talkative, creative, and full of energy. They loved to go on wagon rides all around the camp and play with Play-doh. We also played outside in a short snow flurry that occurred on Sunday afternoon. Most of the children were fascinated by the snow because they have never experienced it before, we all stood outside to try to catch the snowflakes on our tongues. Grace (Murphy) worked in Arts and Crafts and she assisted all the children in creating crafts to bring home. The children made dream catchers, painted mini monsters, and created different shapes using Perler Beads. Sister Eleanor worked with the 6-8-year-olds, playing many board games, decorating cookies, and painting pumpkins. Nicole and Madison worked with the 9-12-year-olds, where they played games such as water volleyball, initiate games, and scavenger hunts. They also played bingo and table water boat sailing so the children could win a variety of prizes.

Every night after dinner the camp hosted an entertainment event. The first night we enjoyed the Halloween movie “Bewitched.” The second night a professional juggler performed and the children absolutely adored his crazy stunts. They especially loved when he juggled knives while standing on a yoga ball. Following the juggler’s performance, the camp hosted a talent show. The campers and volunteers were given the opportunity to do whatever they wanted on stage. One little girl asked Nicole, Morgan, and I to perform in the talent show with her. We performed as back up dancers for the little girl as she sang “Bad Blood” by Taylor Swift. This is something I never thought I would do, but I loved that I left my comfort zone. The last night was the camp’s Halloween night. All the campers and volunteers dressed up in costumes for Halloween; our group dressed up as M&Ms. The volunteers handed out various prizes and candies as the campers came around and trick or treated.

Our job: spread the goodness

I am grateful to have been able to volunteer and attend this weekend with Sister Lena, Sister Eleanor, and my fellow students. I believe that all of us have grown from this experience. The one word I would use to describe my Camp Sunshine experience would be amazing. This camp truly exemplifies the word, it is because of the genuine happiness that radiated throughout the camp. Everywhere I went, every room I entered, and in every activity I participated in, I felt the positivity. The degree of positivity I felt at Camp Sunshine is something that cannot be recreated. I can confirm Maria’s statement that Camp Sunshine is truly the “Happiest Place on Earth.” After seeing the abundance of love in these families, even in spite of the circumstances and situations they face, the feeling of joy and gratitude that the families have for this camp is remarkable. I cannot wait to go back and feel the camp’s positivity again. I know that everyone takes some of the positivity with them when he or she goes home, and it is our job as people who experienced Camp Sunshine to spread the goodness it offers.

 

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