From camper to counselor, Ronnie Gordon changes lives at Camp Sunshine.
Ronnie Gordon wears his passion on his sleeve and for good reason. Diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia when he was 3 years old, Gordon went through three years of chemotherapy at Egleston Children’s Hospital, now part of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. By age 6 in 1993 he was in remission, but in some ways his journey was just beginning. It’s still ongoing because he now volunteers as a camp counselor for a very special camp for children with cancer.
“I really don’t remember too much about my treatments, except that I would spend two weeks in the hospital, then one week at home off and on for those three years,” he said. “In those days, chemo was delivered using an IV, not a port like patients have today, so it meant that I had to be in the hospital the whole two weeks each time. Someone in my immediate family – my dad, my mom, my grandmother or aunt – would stay in my room with me. Can you imagine what it was like for a 3-year-old?”
In addition to their health, childhood cancer patients face additional challenges, way too many for their young years.
“Because of my treatments from age 3 to 6, I didn’t have the same type of social interactions as other kids my age,” he said. “My socialization circle was all about doctors, nurses and adults, but when we heard about Camp Sunshine it sounded like a good idea. However, I was only 7, and I’d been in remission and treatment-free for only a year, so my mom just wasn’t ready to let me go to a weeklong camp away from home with other campers.”
Heading to summer camp
After some persuasion with an endorsement from young Ronnie’s doctors, his mom Jenny and his father Dan agreed the next year to allow him to experience the camp, established for children and families dealing with childhood cancer.
“Many kids with cancer may never get a chance to experience sports, swimming, ropes courses, boating, ziplining, paddleboarding and horseback riding, but Camp Sunshine makes this possible,” Gordon said. “It’s an opportunity to get to know other youngsters with cancer, just like you, make friends, share experiences and do things that kids without cancer often take for granted.”
From that time on, he attended a week of Junior camp each summer, reconnecting with friends from previous years. When he turned 13, Ronnie began to take part in Teen Week for youth ages 13-18.
“Graduation is a special time for campers, many of whom had been coming to Camp Sunshine every summer since they were eligible,” he said. “It’s a time to celebrate all the good times and great friends, plus it’s also a time to reflect back on those friends who aren’t with us anymore.”
Knowing that his summers would no longer include a week of camp, Gordon realized he’d miss the camaraderie, activities, experiences, friends, volunteers and staff. By age 25, he had signed up to become a counselor; he’s now celebrating his 10th year.
“Over the past 10 years, it has been amazing to see camp from another perspective,” he said. “Not only did it bring back memories, it also helped me connect the dots to see why Camp Sunshine is so incredible on so many levels.
“These youngsters come to camp that first year not really knowing what to expect and for some it can be a difficult transition. But with counselors who have walked in their shoes and lived through similar situations, the campers quickly come out of their shells and realize that it’s OK to have fun.”
About Camp Sunshine
Founded in 1982 by a pediatric nurse named Dorothy Jordan, Camp Sunshine has grown from 44 campers in the first program to more than 400 campers and 225 volunteers each summer. It also offers year-round programming that includes attendance at special events, winter sibling camps, pre-school and family activities.
In 2021, Camp Sunshine offered more than 161 programs with more than 3,200 participants. Support for cancer patients and their families through more than 1,200 activity and care packages delivered in hospitals, over 330 “Camp-in-a-Box” packages shipped out, over 1,000 meals delivered, 39 college scholarships. One hundred percent of parents reported they would encourage other children with cancer and their families to participate in Camp Sunshine programs.
“Thirty-two percent of our volunteers were former campers,” said Meredith Allison, a former camper herself and now communications manager for the organization. “And of our volunteers, more than 60 percent have been serving for at least 10 years, as counselors, committee members and in other capacities.”
Children aged 7 are eligible to attend the Junior program, where campers and a counselor share a cabin for a week, participating in activities, sharing meals with other campers and experiencing their first time away from home in a fun setting.
Gordon serves as a committee member for this year’s 22nd Annual Keencheefoonee Road Race, a 2K walk and 5K run for counselors during both sessions of summer camp in June to raise money to help to send these children to camp. It’s named for the road where the camp is located. He also donates his video and media services to support the camp’s marketing.
“Not only does Ronnie understand the unique challenges our campers face, as a former camper and childhood cancer survivor himself, he is a volunteer who generously offers his talents throughout the year,” said Sally Hale, executive director of Camp Sunshine. “If we ask, he always says yes! His patience, creativity, experience in videography and media, and commitment are invaluable. Ronnie has captured the heart of Camp Sunshine through his videos, which will live forever, and for that we will always be grateful.”
Gordon’s other community service includes volunteering and serving on the board of the Pirates of Lanier Poker Run, which has raised more than $1 million for children’s charities, including Camp Sunshine.
How you can help
It costs about $800-$1,000 per camper to attend a weeklong session. Gordon is actively seeking donations for this year’s road race. The goal for 2022 is $400,000 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the camp’s founding.
“Any amount will be appreciated, and it’s a chance to give children with cancer the opportunity to just be kids,” he said. “I know it made a huge difference in my life as an 8-year-old, and Camp Sunshine is continuing to help children with cancer and their families. It is a very special place.”
Donations can be made online at tinyurl.com/krronnie via credit card. Donations by check, payable to Camp Sunshine, can be mailed to Ronnie Gordon, 2269 Woodbriar Dr., Buford, GA 30518.
For more information about Camp Sunshine, visit mycampsunshine.com.