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A Family Legacy: Three Generations at Camp Sunshine

Updated: Jan 16

In 1983, Marcy Vanderwel was charged with the important mission of forming Camp Sunshine. It was clear to her and others that she would need a team. In Marcy’s words, “it was important that these people loved God and were convicted that God loves our special people.” One key team member was Donald “Doc” Van Hoeven. Doc, as he is best known, was the first spiritual director and served Camp Sunshine with joy and gusto for decades, along with his late wife, Shirley. Not only has Doc’s love, compassion, and enthusiasm imparted a rich legacy of inclusion at Camp Sunshine, but he and his family remain integral volunteers and Camp Sunshine supporters.

Doc, his daughter Deb, and grandson Joey recently met with the Camp Sunshine team to reflect on Camp Sunshine’s history and impact within their own family. Doc shared his formation as a child and the impact his family members, who were different, had upon him. Those relationships became the ground for a life of compassion. That compassionate life was nurtured when Doc met his wife Shirley.

Shirley’s brother, John “The Hulk” Bouwman had Down syndrome. Shirley’s family were insistent on normalizing John’s life by ensuring that he lived with family, had an active life and all took part in John’s care. It is important to note that John was born in the late 1940’s, and this type of care was not common for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. John was not just cared for but he was a key member of this family. In our discussions it was clear that John helped shape each member of this family and taught each of them how to love. It was important for his family that there were opportunities, like Camp Sunshine, to be available to enrich John’s life and for John to enrich others.

One could imagine that a family like this would have been raised at Camp Sunshine but truthfully, they were each drawn in different ways and at different times. Doc had been here from the beginning in a very centralized role. Deb found herself in a supportive role and served on the board of directors. Joey began his time with Camp Sunshine when he was in college serving first as counselor (2013), and is currently a part of our med team. Although their entry points were different, the guiding force for this family was always their love for John Bouwman and Love continues to be their guide. Deb offered that “there is no doubt that the love of Camp Sunshine is contagious. It is actually how it started and what drives its ability to thrive.” Doc shared that “Camp Sunshine is an experience that enables understanding, and love, and care for differences.” Joey adds “it is an understanding of love, true love.”

When we asked what do you hope for in Camp Sunshine’s future, Doc shared his hope, “that Camp can look back on our history and see the inclusive love to all who have participated and that love will continue to be the guiding force. That growth is intentional, holding inclusive love at the center and not watering the experiences down.”

Deb shared that “I believe that John’s influence (along with others) helped create the blend of programming that makes Camp Sunshine a very unique approach to creating an unparalleled experience for the campers. My mom (Shirley) believed that at the core of program development is the ability to authentically represent the people you serve.” Deb hopes Camp Sunshine continues to be devoted to individual relationships. “The only way you can really communicate with someone is if you put yourself in their shoes.”

Joey’s hope is to continue the legacy of his family with Camp Sunshine by serving as a leader and hopes to continue the legacy with his wife and children.

Camp Sunshine’s 40-year history is full of meaningful stories and a beautiful tapestry of generational commitment to serving Camp Sunshine and carrying out the vision: “to make the world outside of Camp Sunshine a more affirming and inclusive place by inspiring agents of change with transforming experiences and relationships.”

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