Sunshiney Smiles

Published on Monday, 23 June 2014 23:23 - Written by REBECCA HOEFFNER rhoeffner@tylerpaper.com

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Last week, students and residents with special needs learned important lessons — from each other.

Camp Sunshine is an annual weeklong day camp for adults and children with special needs. Their one-on-one counselors are high school and college students who need volunteer hours.

“During the first couple of days, the students say ‘I don’t know if I can do this,” said Rhonda Reuter, camp director. “Then when the week is over we see these counselors crying because they don’t want it to end.”

This year there were 25 campers. The camp involves activities, such as visits from a Therapet, dancing, arts and crafts, balloon artist or anything organizers think will be fun or can get donated. The yearly budget is about $1,000, Mrs. Reuter said, which includes lunch. There is no cost to campers or their families.

The camp, which is a 501c3, started about eight years ago. It means a lot for parents or guardians, who often use the time for a much-needed respite, Mrs. Reuter said. Her own son who has autism attends the camp.

“It means a lot as a parent to see their interaction with the other campers,” she said. “They can do things at this camp that they usually can’t.”

Volunteers earn 30 hours of volunteer credit.

Liliana Retana, a 15-year-old Robert E. Lee High School student, has been volunteering at the camp for three years.

“I learned to be patient, and I learned how to open myself up to people with special needs,” she said.

Counselors who have been to the camp before are first choices for the camp, but organizers try to choose students from all area schools.

Running a camp for people with special needs has its challenges, Mrs. Reuter said.

“Sometimes a counselor will get here and in the first couple days decide it’s not for them,” she said.

But the people who stay seem to love the experience.

One of those people is Rene McDonald, whose husband is pastor at First Assembly of God in Tyler, where the camp was held this year.

“It’s almost indescribable,” she said. “We enjoyed ourselves so much. We leave every day feeling fulfilled. It’s so fun to watch these campers be so uninhibited. … So many of them are so genuinely joyful. It’s been a true blessing of an experience.”