Dawgs walkin' on Sunshine
Annual visit with kids battling cancer renews players' spirits, too
RUTLEDGE, Ga. -- Kirk Olivadotti knows "the look" better than most.
He gave it in the not-so-distant past, when his 5-year-old daughter, Kasyn -- who is now in remission after being diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia a little more than a year ago -- was barely able to sit up in her hospital bed.
“So when Georgia's football players visit children at places such as Camp Sunshine -- a weeklong summer camp for children who have been diagnosed with cancer -- the Bulldogs' inside linebackers coach fully understands the emotional lift they can provide the kids, and occasionally their parents.
They had joy, regardless of whatever they were going through. That's the moment where it really hit me and I sort of had to take a step back from the group and just take a moment, analyze myself and just thank God for what I was going through, but also ask God to forgive me for all the little petty things that I complain about on a” -- UGA receiver Chris Conley, on walking in to Camp Sunshine to greet campers
"Before the Georgia Tech game when we went to Children's, I told the players after we went there to watch the parents see their kids be able to get up and sit up in bed and the parents almost start crying in the corner. I've been there," Olivadotti said of the team's trip to Children's Healthcare of Atlanta last season.
That visit -- which the Bulldogs take every other year when the Georgia-Georgia Tech game is played in Atlanta -- hit close to home for Olivadotti. He had been a member of Georgia's coaching staff for only a few months when Kasyn was diagnosed last June. While he tried to figure out a way to juggle an enormously time-consuming job with tending to his family, Kasyn typically spent several days a week at Children's in treatment.
That is where Kasyn first met many of the same doctors and nurses who work at Camp Sunshine, people with whom she excitedly visited while she accompanied her father and some of his football players on their annual visit with the campers last week.
Olivadotti vividly recalled a hospital visit from Camp Sunshine staffers that lifted his daughter's spirits when the effects of her treatment left her physically drained.
"A year ago, Kasyn hadn't been out of bed in about 10 days and Camp Sunshine came to the hospital and that was the first time she got out of bed in 10 days," Olivadotti said. "I was so excited that I couldn't even see, and she was just fishing in a little bucket and she got excited about doing that. ... That got her out of bed and from there, she's gotten better."
Hers is a battle with which many of the 400 annual campers and 120-plus volunteers at Camp Sunshine can relate, when a normal childhood is interrupted by a fearsome disease. Cancer treatment often robs children of their energy and prevents them from fully participating in sports and other activities like others their age -- and yet at Camp Sunshine, almost everyone has faced those same circumstances and can empathize.
"That's what this camp really teaches you. You come here and you see everyone else that is you, where in your normal life, you're the child with cancer. That's who you are when you're diagnosed," said Kenneth Kretschmar, a middle school coach and teacher in Rockdale County who has attended Camp Sunshine for 24 years, first as a 9-year-old who was diagnosed with a bone tumor in his leg and now as a counselor. "When you come here, you're just like everybody else. All that kind of floats away for a week and you just get to be a normal kid. That's the great thing about camp. That's why I come back now. That's what I got out of this and I just try to give that to other kids in a similar situation."
Julia Camp, 12, attended Camp Sunshine for the first time this year and called it "a blast." Camp said she attended a YMCA camp on Lake Burton in the past and was excited to learn she would still be able to attend an overnight summer camp at Camp Sunshine.
"I was really excited because I didn't get to go to my old sleep-away camp. It's really fun to go to camp," said Camp, who received a get-well message from one of her neighbors, Georgia center David Andrews, during the Bulldogs' visit to camp.
Andrews sending a hello through a teammate was one of many forms of goodwill the Bulldogs showed during their visits on each of the previous two Tuesdays. They toured the expansive facility where campers have a wide array of activities available -- from swimming to magic tricks to arts and crafts to goat milking. The camp even has its own radio station capable of broadcasting within a couple miles of the facility.
But one of the biggest attractions each year is when Georgia's players visit with the campers for an afternoon -- a tradition that spans the entire 30-year history of Camp Sunshine.
"If you look around the dining hall on the morning that the Bulldogs come, there's lots of red and black and the kids know that they're going to be here and they get excited to see them every year," camp director Amy Moosbrugger said.
Judging by their excitement to greet the players as they posed for pictures, shot bows and arrows and played football together, the campers clearly enjoyed the visits. Meanwhile, several players said they not only had fun playing with the campers, but also received a much-needed reality check regarding the trivial complaints they make on a regular basis.
"I walked in and I saw some kids maybe in a wheelchair or some kids who were having problems walking and that they were just so happy and that they had joy, regardless of whatever they were going through," receiver Chris Conley said. "That's the moment where it really hit me and I sort of had to take a step back from the group and just take a moment, analyze myself and just thank God for what I was going through, but also ask God to forgive me for all the little petty things that I complain about on a day-to-day basis.
"So I think it was a great day and it just had some great moments -- some real moments to have a reality check and just to be able to do something great."