Camp Sunshine was established in 1983 to offer summer camp experiences to people with intellectual disabilities. It was a dream come true for the original group of Camp Sunshine parents who desired to see their children have the same opportunity to experience summer camp as other children and young adults, and it's a dream that still flourishes.
Local educator Marcy Vanderwel was appointed as the first director of Camp Sunshine and was tasked with planning and implementing the program on the Camp Geneva campus in Holland. Marcy’s background in both special education and church ministry to people with disabilities led her to implement the one-to-one ratio between counselor and campers. As research suggests that a one-to-one ratio between teacher and student is the most effective method of instruction in special education, Marcy decided to format Camp Sunshine in the same way.
That first year, there were 25 campers and 25 counselors and the leadership team consisted of two nurses, a chaplain, a musician, and an arts and crafts director. Forty years later, Camp Sunshine has 4-four day sessions, with 240 campers and 240 counselors in total and an additional community of approximately 150 volunteers who serve in various capacities throughout our sessions at two different locations..
Not only do some of the campers from those early years still attend camp, but the impact of Camp Sunshine has spread beyond West Michigan: a similar camp experience launched in Uganda in 2013, and even NFL player Matthew Judon speaks regularly about his past experience as a counselor – while other counselors have gone on to careers and work with more compassion, more understanding, and more love for one another.
As the Camp Sunshine community reflects on these 40 years of joyful camp experiences, we have rifled through our archives and found stories and reflections from many volunteers who have gone before us. Again and again, our volunteers have shared the stories that uplift, inspire, and instruct - we’ve put together some excerpts from every decade here:
These reflections have been lightly edited for content and clarity.
After my first day of camp, I was ready to go home, and quit. I felt like giving up, but as I wrote in my journal that night, I began to really understand what Camp Sunshine was really all about…As the week progressed, I didn't want to leave…I still wanted to continue giving love and support…The bond of friendship that formed with both campers and staff was overwhelming.
No one has lived life to its fullest spiritual and emotional capacity until trying Camp Sunshine. If I could give a three word description of the week, “discovery,” “transition,” and “fulfillment” would be the most appropriate.
Reflecting back to the years previous to my stay at Camp Sunshine, I knew little about the needs and feelings, even the overall outlook on life of the disabled. It’s too bad most of the population is in the same boat. A point to make awareness more prevalent in the world today should be deeply emphasized.
1987 There seems to be no strangers here, no matter how one looks or talks or acts….everything is balanced–there are no higher levels, there are no valleys– there is only a fruitful plain where we all stand together, holding hands. Sharing ourselves with no holding back. Our all is for others and what’s leftover after everyone around us has been served and is happy–
…I saw and personally experienced the love in which these campers have to give to me. All I need to do is open myself up enough to receive it. Once I received a small portion, I wanted nothing more than to give back all I had to them. That is exactly what I did.
2004 In my daily life, I often find myself distracted by our society’s “outer truths…” This can dictate how I look at another, judging outward appearance and what we believe to be true about them based on what we might see…The setting of Camp Sunshine combats all of this. We learn from each other.”
It’s one thing to work with people with disabilities in a clinical setting, but to interact with someone as a friend is a revolutionary experience.
Being in a place where everyone is accepted for who they are is so beautiful. I will miss appreciating people this way, but plan on keeping this experience with me especially in my future career as a PT.
2019 Camp Sunshine makes me like who I am. It makes me feel like I have a lot to offer and in return I receive. It pulls the goodness and light within a person and lets them shine.
Camp Sunshine is truly such a unique experience. It has shown me what true beauty is and how to be my best self. Being vulnerable and receiving love from every individual helps show me how to be my best self.
I felt as if love wasn’t “just a word” or an act of true kindness. I felt love, saw love, gave love, and received love in so many different ways, shapes and forms. You give a hug when you’re happy, that’s love. You give advice or have a friendly conversation, that’s love. You see another camper/ counselor duo smiling and laughing, that’s love. My perception of love changed throughout my whole camp experience and I’m honestly so grateful. <3
I could write a book of reasons why. Camp Sunshine is the one place on earth where the pure of heart is not only visible but it is everywhere. Love and joy is overflowing, everyone just is able to be their true self.
Conclusion The stories go on and on, pages filled with a heartfelt appreciation for the Camp Sunshine experience and commitment to living a life that celebrates the values our community shares, values like: inclusion, empowerment and transformation. The legacy of Camp Sunshine is told in these stories and in the fact that campers and volunteers return again and again, ready to immerse themselves in the Camp Sunshine experience and share this story with others!
A sneak peek: In May, we’ll share reflections from our campers!