July 1, 2016
Defensive end Michael Barnett visited Camp Sunshine for the second time Thursday.
By John Frierson
UGAAA Staff Writer
RUTLEDGE, Ga. — Visitors at Camp Sunshine summer camp receive two things within minutes of their arrival: a friendship bracelet and a hug. They leave with so much more.
Camp Sunshine, a retreat for children with cancer, features two one-week sessions and is held at Camp Twin Lakes. Other than the advanced medical facilities, which can even provide chemotherapy treatments, it looks like any other summer camp: cabins, a lake with kayaks and a zip-line, a swimming pool, tennis courts, arts and crafts — and lots of children roaming around have a great time.
Of course most summer camps don’t have black vans drive up and drop off loads of Georgia football players. That was the case Thursday afternoon, as it was the week before. This is the camp’s 34th summer and Georgia’s football program has been involved with many of them, dating back to when Vince Dooley was the Bulldogs’ coach.
Mo Thrash, a 1969 Georgia graduate and member of Camp Sunshine’s board of directors, was the first one to greet the Bulldogs when they arrived Thursday. “I’m a Dawg all the way,” he said in his opening comments to the group.
Thrash isn’t sure exactly how many times the Bulldogs have visited Camp Sunshine, but he’s been there for all of them.
“I’ve seen them leave here and I’ve seen them come back,” Thrash said. “I swear to you, I think they get as much or more out of it as the kids do. When they leave here, they appreciate it.”
For a lot of Thursday’s visitors, this was their first trip to Camp Sunshine. It was sophomore defensive end Michael Barnett’s second.
“It was a lot of fun, just being out here with the kids and spending time with them,” Barnett said. “They love the Georgia Bulldogs and we just want to give back. I really love it.”
The Bulldogs were wearing their red jerseys, which to so many adoring fans surely look like the red cape of a superhero. These are strong, tough and courageous young men that play a difficult and physically demanding game.
But one look at these children and words like courage and strength have a much different meaning. The bandana covering an 8-year-old’s bald head starts to look like part of a superhero’s outfit every bit as much as the red Georgia jersey does.
“That’s exactly what it is,” Thrash said.
As Thrash led the Bulldogs on a tour of the facilities, the players got to spend some time with the children, ages 7-12. After a stop in the arts and crafts building, some players walked out with braided hair and others were now sporting more than a little glitter on their heads. All were smiling.
Walking among the cabins, a young boy named Austin came up, a disposable camera in one hand and an autograph notebook in the other. He wore a black cap with a Bulldog on it and red shorts sporting a “G” on the left leg. Hesitant at first, he was soon surrounded by seven Bulldogs for a photo he’ll cherish for a long time.
Barnett was among the players in the photo.
“You can’t take life for granted and you’ve just got to live it out,” he said. “These kids, they’re going through some tough stuff, and this camp is a great experience for them and a chance to have fun and just be kids.”
A lot of the people that work at the camp are former campers themselves. Georgia coach Kirby Smart’s brother, Karl, battled leukemia when he was a teenager and attended the camp, and later worked there. Smart attended last week’s session, which featured teenaged campers.
The game of dodgeball in the gym is a fixture of every Georgia visit. It’s a little more aggressive when the teens are competing, Thrash said, but he reminded Thursday’s visiting Bulldogs to take it easy on the youngsters (not that they were going to take it easy on the big Bulldogs).
“Be yourselves,” Thrash said with a laugh, “but don’t knock them to the floor.”
Camp Sunshine is a meaningful and powerful place. From the moment you arrive it’s like one big hug, for the campers, staff and visitors. Thrash said 92 percent of this summer’s staff members, all volunteers, were back for at least their second year, and more than half had been coming for at least a decade.
It’s something special, for sure, as sophomore wide receiver Michael Chigbu found out Thursday.
“I’m happy to be a part of it,” he said, “and I’d come every week if I could.”
John Frierson is the staff writer for the UGA Athletic Association and curator of the ITA Men’s Tennis Hall of Fame. You can find his work at: Frierson Files. He’s also on Twitter: @FriersonFiles and @ITAHallofFame.