Ten-year-old Makenzi Barclay stands up to get a better view during a Polynesian dance performance at Camp Sunshine Dreams.
She leans on her big sister’s shoulder, and Skyler Barclay, 12, wraps an arm around Makenzi’s back. The Clovis girls sway in unison as they watch a happy hula dancer about their age.
This is no ordinary camp, and these are no ordinary sisters, but here they say they feel “normal.” Camp Sunshine Dreams is for children with cancer and their siblings. For one week each summer, the Camp Keola facility at Huntington Lake becomes a haven of healing and fun for these incredible kids.
“I haven’t been to a lake in a while,” Makenzi says, “and been around people who’re going through what I have, too.”
Makenzi was diagnosed with leukemia last year and is still receiving chemotherapy treatments. A Valley Children’s Hospital doctor and group of nurses volunteering at the camp make sure Makenzi and others in the group of around 100 campers from the Central Valley receive the medicine and care they need while away from home.
The Barclay sisters especially like paddleboarding together – something they’d never tried before camp.
“I like that we’re together and we can work as a team and still stay balanced and have fun. I also like sometimes how you fall over into the water,” Skyler adds with a giggle.
The sisters love Camp Sunshine Dreams.
“Everything is like really special for everybody,” Skyler says, “and it just makes you feel like you’re a normal kid, you know. You’re not that one with the sister who has leukemia, or you’re not that kid who has to wear a mask. Everybody’s the same. Everybody’s normal.”
The camp, run with volunteers and donations, was founded in 1986. Campers participate in activities such as archery and relay races at the lake, sing and dance together, and circle up in groups to share stories.
Camp director and board member Stephanie Scharbach first came to Camp Sunshine Dreams when she was 8 with her younger brother, Brian, who had cancer as a child.
“The kids are always in the hospital, sitting in a hospital bed, and mom and dad are very over-protective,” Scharbach says of many children with cancer. “And to get up here – they can run around, they can be kids.”
There were lots of kids acting like kids at Camp Sunshine Dreams last week.
“It’s meant a lot to me,” says Trenity Monsibais of Tulare about the camp, “because I’m not supposed to be here. They only gave me a 50 percent chance of surviving, and yeah, I’m here.”
The 14-year-old was first diagnosed with leukemia when she was 9.
“The third time I got diagnosed I said, nope, no more. Hospice care. I’m through with this.”
Through it all, she has this message: “Never give up. Always think positive, never negative. No matter what, always stay positive.”
Another camper, Ronnie Salmon, 14, went through three years of chemotherapy. Her leukemia has been in remission for a year and a half.
As campers sang and danced along to a live acoustic guitar performance by Josh Ingram of “Lean on Me,” Ronnie shared a message to those who want to help someone with cancer: “Be supportive. Just be there for them no matter what. Don’t ever let them know that you’re hurting. Let them see that you’re happy in helping them through what they can’t get through alone.”
Laura Zabicki, owner of Sweet Dreams Cakes and Flowers in Oakhurst who made a special cake for campers, worked hard to support her son, Danny, who died of a rare muscle and bone cancer at age 17.
“They start feeling responsible for everybody else’s feelings about their illness,” Zabicki says of many children with cancer. “Not only do they have this disease, they are trying to take care (of those around them), so this (camp) is maybe time out from that. Up here, they can just be afraid, or be happy, or be whatever.”
Camp volunteer Laura Andrews, a nurse at Valley Children’s Hospital, says something similar.
“A lot of kids say, ‘This is really a special place because I can talk about what I’ve been through. I can’t talk about that with my parent, because it makes them sad.’ ”
Andrews says the camp transforms children.
“I have seen kids come here that I know from clinic and you see them after camp, and they are totally different kids. … Having a chance to be a kid, and meeting other kids like them, it makes a huge difference, and I’ve seen it over and over again.”
A transformation was underway with Makenzi during a relay race at Huntington Lake. She stood timidly on the edge of a wooden dock at first, having never jumped into a lake before. The other children in her group were already swimming toward a floating trampoline, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to follow. But with encouragement from a camp counselor, Makenzi took the plunge.
From the shore, her sister Skyler was smiling and cheering her on.
Support Camp Sunshine Dreams
Camp Sunshine Dreams is free for children with cancer and their siblings. Camp staff say it costs about $700 to send a child to camp for a week. Donations can be made online at campsunshinedreams.com, where people can also learn more about volunteering or enrolling a child in camp.