‘We try to make every day the best day’: Sunrise day camp lets children with cancer do kid things

  The Garoon Gateway to Science Park is an upscale, hands-on lab for kids at JCC Chicago in Hawthorn Woods. In 2023, staff opened Sunrise on the property for kids with cancer. John Starks/
A greenhouse is new to the Garoon Gateway to Science Park at JCC Chicago campus on Old McHenry Road near Long Grove. John Starks/jstarks@dailyherald.
  A “Yurt Village” has been added this year for Sunrise Day Camp, which shares a campus with Elaine Frank Apachi Day Camp on JCC Chicago’s campus near Long Grove. Sunrise is a free camp for kids with cancer and their siblings. John Starks/
Sunrise Day Camp, which opened in 2023, is free for kids with cancer and their siblings. It shares a campus with Elaine Frank Apachi Day Camp near Long Grove. New facilities and programs will greet campers this year. John Starks/jstarks@dailyherald.

About this time every year, preparations intensify for the pending arrival of hundreds of kids who will attend the eight-week summer session at Elaine Frank Apachi Day Camp on Old McHenry Road near Long Grove.

Since it opened in 2008 on a serene 38 acres surrounded by protected wetlands, the campus operated by JCC Chicago has grown to become a full-service center including a variety of offerings and activities.

That's the case this year, too, although the anticipation has upped a notch for what that will mean for a special group of campers attending Sunrise Day Camp, which shares the campus. This will be the second year of Sunrise, which runs in tandem with Apachi and is offered at no charge to kids with cancer and their siblings aged 3½ to 16.

It's a place where, for awhile, treatments, doctors’ offices and hospital rooms can be forgotten and kids can just be kids.

“Sunrise campers can come as many days as their treatment allows,” explained Director Karen Abrams. “We try to make every day the best day.”

Depending on how they are feeling on a given day, Sunrise campers can create their own high- or low-energy menu of activities. For many families, this was the first time their kids were around other kids doing kid things, she added.

With a few exceptions, both sets of campers share facilities — including a pool, ball diamonds, climbing walls and basketball — but not at the same time. The campers don’t directly interact or compete due to safety and health protocols.

For this summer, a number of projects have or will be completed as part of an expansion to enhance the campus and programming.

That includes a greenhouse in the Garoon Gateway to Science Park; Ninja Warriors course; sport court upgrades to include pickleball courts and new basketball courts; an upgraded and enhanced outdoor Assembly Green where campers’ days open and close; and accessible pathways throughout the campus.

A turf field, splash pad, open-air pavilion and tree house are planned future projects.

One element installed specifically for Sunrise is a “Yurt Village” comprised of four air-conditioned, heated and ventilated yurts to be used for arts and crafts, a game room with foosball, a STEM center and Zen Den, a place to take a break.

“They’re pretty cool. I think the kids will have so much fun here,” said Jennifer Zislis, director of operations.

Spring Grove resident Michelle Korom’s sons, Logan, 6, and Teddy, 5, certainly did last year. Teddy was diagnosed with Stage 4 neuroblastoma at 10 weeks old and has been in remission for four years. Korom heard about Sunrise on a Facebook group called Cancer Families & Warriors of Illinois.

She said her sons went swimming every day that weather permitted and participated in various sports and climbing activities.

“They had a great time,” Korom said. “I liked the way they were kept busy and safe all day.”

She also appreciated that no fees were charged.

Korom said the siblings were worn out from camp and many days napped in the car on the way home.

This year, their sister, Isabelle, who kept asking to go last year but was too young, will join them.

As one of nine in the city and suburbs, the Apachi camp near Route 22 draws about 500 campers from surrounding communities. Sunrise is part of a national system and the only one in the Midwest. Its reach is broader but potential audience more defined.

Referrals originate from a network of hospitals in Chicago and suburbs. There were 43 campers for the debut in 2023, with double that or more expected this year.

“We knew we would start out small,” Zislis said. “It happened fairly quickly.”

Sunrise Day Camp-Chicago grew from a conversation between Addie Goodman, president and CEO of JCC Chicago, and Arnie Preminger, who founded Sunrise Association and opened the first camp on Long Island, New York, in 2006.

The JCC Chicago board voted to establish a Sunrise camp at the Apachi campus with the goal of creating inclusive summer camps, year-round programs and in-hospital recreational activities for kids with cancer and their siblings at no charge.

A $1 million donation from the Hecktman Family Foundation and $500,000 in matching opportunities provided the seed money for operations and campus improvements.

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