Sunrise Unique Day Camp For Kids With Cancer & Their Siblings

By Mona Rivera, 1010 WINS

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — “I like that they made a camp for children who have cancer!” That kind of enthusiasm from Madison Lewinger, age 7, is typical of the cancer patients at Sunrise Day Camp.

Madison, known as Maddy, and her twin brother, Jack, have Wilms Tumor, a rare type of kidney cancer that primarily affects children. The twins are among more than 500 campers registered this summer at Sunrise Day Camp, in Wheatley Heights, LI.

It is the only dedicated full summer day camp in the nation for children with cancer and their siblings.

Jack and Maddy at Sunrise Day Camp (photo: C.Conte)

Jack and Maddy at Sunrise Day Camp (photo: C.Conte)

“It’s just an incredible place where kids can be kids”, said Arnie Preminger, President and CEO, adding “they can do the things that children do without having to worry about their illness.”

When Sunrise started in 2006, 97 children were registered. This summer 523 children, between 3 1/2 and 16 years old, are registered and come from as far away as the Bronx and Manhattan.

Jordan Benjamin, 13, who has a brain tumor, comes to Sunrise from Queens and loves it so much he wants to be here all the time. “Sometimes, like, when I’m at home, I just can’t wait to go to camp again.”

When he was first diagnosed at age 9, he felt ostracized. “People at school started thinking I was getting dumber,” he said about having brain cancer. “When they introduced me to this camp, everyone is going through the same sorts of problems and I felt so happy.”

Madison Lewinger said when she arrived at camp “I didn’t have any hair.” Now she has a full head of hair but continues to wear a hat. Most campers and staffers wear hats, scarves or bandanas to support those undergoing cancer treatments.

Children do everything from sing-alongs and playing board games in the huge real tree house, to playing soccer, baseball, handball and most other sports at the camp’s 300-acre wooded site that borders Nassau and Suffolk counties.

There are: Club houses; Volleyball courts; Basketball courts; An art center; Photography; Ceramics; A miniature golf course; A golf driving range; GIANT chess set (pieces are between 2-2.5″ tall); 4 Olympic sized pools.

sunrise day camp1 1010 WINS Reporter Mona Rivera Spends Day At Sunrise Day Camp

Children playing at Sunrise Day Camp (Christian Conte)

Unlike other day camps, Sunrise deals with death on a periodic basis. Talia Castellano, the makeup star and internet sensation, was a camper at Sunrise for two summers. “She was a very special young lady” said Preminger. “She was battling two types of cancer.”

He said when Castellano died on July 16, her loss was “profoundly felt throughout most of this camp.”

Camp is free for all children, thanks to donations and outside sources.

For more information on Sunrise Day Camp and to make a donation, click here.

Mona’s observations:

I was amazed by how Sunrise looks like any other day camp. I watched kids arriving on mini buses,  playing games, singing, laughing.  If I didn’t come here knowing this was a camp for kids with cancer, I would never have guessed it .

And when I met some of the campers, I was struck by how upbeat everyone seemed. 

My children, who are perfectly healthy, went to day camps for years and I have to say this camp seemed so much like theirs.  These kids, though, seemed much more appreciative of day camp than mine did. Not once did I sense any doom and gloom. These kids are so happy to be campers!  

I’ll never forget the little girl who reminded me how great she felt here,  playing,  rather than being stuck in a hospital, or the boy who told me he wished he could be at Sunrise all the time.