Twenty young cancer patients camped, relaxed and had “boatloads” of fun during the 28th annual “Teen Lake Escape” at the McIngvale Mansion in Lago Vista.
Each year’s trip is free and is put on by the Sunshine Kids Foundation, a national nonprofit dedicated to providing quality group activities for kids with cancer. This year’s trip, which began July 23 and ended July 27, invited kids from Metairie, Louisiana, New Orleans, Louisiana, Houston, San Antonio and Austin, who were recommended for the trip by their pediatric oncological departments.
“It’s so important for these kids to get the opportunity to meet other kids their same age who are going through a similar battle,” said Jennifer Wisler, director of children’s services for the group. “It give them the opportunity to realize that they are not alone in their struggle. That first day, the kids were all so quiet because they were trying to figure out ‘oh my goodness, what did I get myself into’ but not 24 hours later, they’re all the best of friends. It’s so freeing for a child to know they’re not the only one battling cancer.”
Wisler has been with Sunshine Kids for 20 years.
“Teenagers deal with so many issues anyway and just adding a cancer diagnosis to it makes the teen years all that much harder for them,” Wisler said. “Finding that group they can relate to is so important.”
The young cancer patients invited to the camp range in age from 12 to 19 and are in different stages of treatment. Some have completed treatment and are in survivorship programs.
“I love seeing the transformation in a child who has been recently diagnosed and is maybe feeling isolation or depression,” Wisler said. “Seeing that transformation when they lay eyes on another group of kids like them that are struggling with the same battle, it’s eye-opening for everyone. Parents have told me that when their children return home from these trips, they’re rejuvenated with a positive energy and outlook that not only helps them in their battle but brings them back to the normalcy they so crave.”
Campers had the choice to go boating, tubing, jet skiing or fishing, along with access to a private bowling alley and a movie theater inside the mansion.
The campers were also treated to an immersive police enforcement demonstration from the Travis County sheriff’s office, which included a K-9 training exhibition, an exploration of SWAT vehicles and forensic crime lab equipment and meet-and-greets with staff. The kids are monitored by medical representatives who can respond to their health needs. Prior to the camp, medical professionals gauge whether the patients are well enough to go on the trip safely.
LeighAnna Hutchinson, a clinical charge nurse at M.D. Anderson’s Children’s Cancer Hospital and a Taylor Lake Village resident, said it’s nice to see the kids having adventures and bonding together outside the hospital setting.
“I think the great thing about Sunshine Kids is that we offer unique experiences,” said Hutchinson on the second to last day of the camp. “It’s not just a trip to a local destination: it’s coming out to places like Lake Travis where some kids have maybe never been on a boat. Giving them that opportunity to get out of the hospital, outside of that protected environment and come and spend a week on the lake is great. Sometimes, these kids would never have the opportunity outside of Sunshine Kids.”
Hutchinson has been involved with Sunshine Kids over a 20-year span, both as a camper and a medical representative for the past 5 years.
“This point in the trip is really fun,” Hutchinson added. “You’ve seen the friendships being made and all these connections. We’ll have some sadness as we all start to part but the kids really made good friendships and bonds that I think will remain with them.”
Connor Warfield, a 14-year-old camper from Katy, said this trip was the best yet.
“It’s hard to name a favorite things since there were so many fun activities Sunshine Kids has planned for us,” said Warfield. “If I had to pick one, it would probably be this event we had today with the police demonstration or the paddleboarding.”
Warfield was diagnosed with leukemia in 2016 when he was 11, after a swollen mass developed on his skull. He was told he had just two months to live.
“For my peers and the people who have helped me, I have to say thank you for being with me,” he added. “People who haven’t been through this, it’s not easy but I can say if you can help the person who’s going through cancer, it will make it a whole lot easier for them.”
Madison Adams, an 18-year-old from New Orleans, said she is having a ball for her first visit in Texas.
“This is kind of cheesy but I’ve really loved meeting everyone here who’s a part of this program this year,” Adams laughed. “I like meeting new people and branching out, it’s just who I am, so it’s been really fun meeting new friends for my first time in Texas.”
Adams was diagnosed with leukemia when he was 13 years old.
“I went through a really tough time because my body was older than what the doctors are used to with leukemia patients so the chemo wasn’t working,” said Adams. “It was a really long road but I finally got into remission in July 2014… Life is full of a lot of different challenges, you can’t just sit there and wait for it to be over. You’ve got to get out there and live your life.”
For more information about the non-profit, visit https://www.sunshinekids.org/.