GARFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — There is an unmistakable ray that shines out on day one at Camp Sunshine. It’s heard in the laughter and cheering, seen in the smiles and hugs and felt just being around the environment the nonprofit has grown over the last 40 years.
“One thing that we are incredibly aware of is that the population that we serve is individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” executive director Kathy Rohlman said. “And without a doubt, they arrive with the greatest amount of joy and they teach us about joy. And it’s something that we hold very sacred to us.”
Camp Sunshine started in 1983 after a group of parents approached founder Marcy VanderWal and said they wanted and believed in a space where their children with developmental or intellectual disabilities could go to camp. VanderWal created a curriculum, knowing from her experience in special education that in order for the summer camp to be successful, a 1-to-1 counselor to camper ratio was essential.
“She started with 27 campers and 27 counselors and did a 1-to-1 pairing,” Rolhman said. “And we are still working very hard on that 1-to-1 pairing. And so 240 campers means 240 counselors.”
The program now offers four four-night summer sessions. Two of them use the facility at Camp Henry north of Newaygo and the other sessions happen at Camp Blodgett in West Olive.
“Camp is high energy, pure exhaustion and the greatest fun you will ever have in your life,” Rolhman said in between session one and session two at Camp Henry.
The experience is life changing, Rolhman said — not just for the campers but also the counselors, many whom come back year after year. That includes Josh Kim. He was a sophomore in high school when he first started volunteering at Camp Sunshine. Next fall he’ll be a senior at Michigan State University, pursuing a degree in special education.
“This is like the most eye-opening experience; just the most humbling, the most rewarding, the most giving,” Kim said. “You’re put in the most vulnerable spot. Where you’re at the most vulnerable is when you can most change. And if you really want to change as a human and give back and feel rewarded and make amazing connections for the rest of your life, this is a place to be at.”
The camp offers typical summer camp amenities, complete with cabins, horseback riding, archery, zip lines, water games and tubing, and the end of the night bonfire with songs and s’mores. Of course, Camp Sunshine has learned to sprinkle its own twist on the sessions and give campers more input on what happens at camp. The ultimate goal is that the sunshine from camp finds its way to all the corners of the community.
“I think that what is important for us to remember in a world that doesn’t always look at individuals with disabilities as whole, as though they need healing,” Rolhman said. “That is incorrect. They are already whole. And it may be us that actually needs to change our view and our healing. We provide a space where they can be free to be themselves and in turn they teach us to be free, to be who we truly are. So who is this camp really for? It is for every single person who says yes.”
Learn more about opportunities to get involved as a volunteer, counselor, or camper at Camp Sunshine on its website.