Giggling children scamper in the sunshine, decked in getups that range from tutus and clown wigs to superman costumes.
It is Color Wars day at Sunrise Day Camp-Chicago-a summer camp for children with cancer and their siblings ages 3 ½ to 16-and the joy in the air is palpable.
JCC Chicago partnered with the national Sunrise Association to bring this very special summer camp to Chicago in the summer of 2023, aiming to restore the simple pleasures of childhood to these children.
"There is a saying at Sunrise Day Camps--a saying that is very much front and center for every counselor and staff person--"Best Day Ever!" said Addie Goodman, President & CEO of JCC Chicago. "When you don't know what tomorrow will bring, you do everything you can to ensure that today is the absolute best."
From the minute the campers get off the bus, each day is filled with warmth, friendship and fun in the sun.
The program--which is offered free-of-charge to families--launched at JCC Chicago's Lake County campus with 43 campers from throughout the metropolitan area and as far north as Wisconsin. Next year, Sunrise-Chicago expects to welcome 100 campers or more.
JCC Chicago is adapting its facilities to meet the children's medical needs, constructing air-conditioned yurts that feel like camp while providing a controlled climate. Activities are similarly modified.
"Every activity has a high and a low," Goodman said. "For kids who are up to doing the high ropes course and zipline, they can. For kids who need to take it a little more easy, we have options."
Nurses accompany the campers to activities so they aren't pulled away from the fun for something like a scraped knee.
"Every minute matters, every day is the best day ever," Goodman said. "Because for some kids, they may only be well enough to come that one day."
Unlike most oncology programs and camps, Sunrise Day Camp-Chicago lasts eight full weeks and welcomes children as often as they are able to attend. Because it is a day camp, children are able to continue their medical treatment during summer, while participating in camp on their good days.
Including siblings is also important at this camp, as the experience of having a sibling with cancer has been scary, isolating, and traumatic for them, too. Like their siblings, some have been home-schooled or missed recreational experiences for fear of bringing home germs.
"We are seeing what kids missed developmentally and socially during COVID. As you can imagine, this is magnified for a child with cancer or their sibling," Goodman said. "They need a little more TLC and-most importantly-a community of peers who understand their experience."
Counselors and other Sunrise staff have chosen to work or volunteer there because it is meaningful to them. Some counselors are cancer survivors themselves or have lost siblings to the disease.
"The relationships the counselors form with the campers are so deep, trusting, and kind," she said. "From something so hard comes something so beautiful. I think that is what Sunrise is about in so many ways."
The camp includes free, round-trip transportation for all campers from the neighborhood where they live, on fully staffed, air-conditioned buses, which provides added respite for parents.
"Kids always have the option to go-we are ready for them every single day, to welcome every camper who is able to come. That is a lot of the magic behind Sunrise."
The only people who know which campers have cancer and which don't are the nurse and the camp director.
"Some kids are in active treatment, some are in remission, some are siblings of children with cancer," Goodman said. "Here, they are just kids at camp."
Sunrise Chicago is generously supported by the Hecktman Family Foundation, which seeded the first three years of camp operations.