77: The Butterfly Effect

77: The Butterfly Effect

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Cancer Book

The Butterfly Effect

It was a dream come true. I was about to see Paul McCartney performing at a benefit concert for Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang camp—a summer sleep-away for children with cancer and other chronic, life-threatening illnesses. Among those joining the former Beatle that night was an array of superstars. But when McCartney came out to sing “Yesterday,” backed by a string quartet, I was as if heaven had turned on every light.

Yet while the stars on stage were dazzling, the real superstars were the children from the camp who appeared both live and on film, fishing, playing, and even bantering with Paul Newman. One child even had the privilege of chatting with Paul McCartney onstage as the latter explained how “Yesterday” had come to him in a dream.

It was at that moment that I also started to dream.

As president of the Friedberg Jewish Community Center in New York, I have built and operated summer day camps for the past twenty-four years; in fact, my career began as a teen working as a counselor. But I’d never ventured into a medical setting. Yet, the more I watched and listened that night, the more intrigued I became. The questions kept running through my mind: Were there any day camps, as opposed to sleep-away camps, for these kids? Were any local? How many kids with some form of cancer lived in the area where I was running camps?

As amazing as sleep-away camps are, not every child is comfortable in such a setting; nor is every parent able to make that leap. For children who are chronically ill, that hesitation can increase exponentially, often in proportion to the degree of illness. And even for those who are able to go, most sleep-away camps for children with cancer offer only one- to two-week programs.

What does a child with cancer do for the rest of the summer? What Paul Newman and others like him were giving to these children was a gift beyond measure. My question was, could my organization supplement such programs with a summer-long day camp where children with cancer would be able to come and go at their discretion? Keeping in mind the devastating effect that a chronically ill child can have on a family’s finances, I also knew that if we were to offer such a camp, it would have to be free.

In a matter of weeks following this amazing concert, my staff and I were already gathering statistics and talking to hospitals. The initial response was overwhelmingly positive and we began gaining momentum at breathtaking speed. Soon, we had a general sense of what we would need to build such a camp, a place we were already calling Sunrise Day Camp.

We reached out to local supporters and to government officials to raise the necessary startup funds, while our Board of Directors voted unanimously to back the project. We assembled a team of advisors volunteer and professional, including parents, social workers, doctors, and child life specialists.

We visited Paul Newman’s camp, along with others, to see firsthand what I’d seen on film, and more importantly, to learn.

We built an amazing team. Harvey Weisenberg, a long-time member of the New York State Assembly, agreed to be our honorary chair, while Bonnie Flatow, a veteran at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, became our hospital liaison. Michele Vernon, with a long career overseeing resident camps, came aboard as Camp Director and Adam Levy, Director of Pediatric Neuro-Oncology at Medical Center, volunteered to become our Medical Director.

Within months, four of the most significant hospitals in New York had signed on as affiliates, and a million dollars had been raised to build the camp. We rebuilt roads, put in misting tents and lifts for the pool, built playgrounds and sport courts, mini-golf courses and driving ranges, air-conditioned buildings and natural log cabins, and even constructed a universally-accessible tree house.

We opened with 106 children. A year later, four more hospitals signed on, along with 100 additional kids. This past summer, 266 children attended camp, with eleven area hospitals now part of the sunrise experience.

Sunrise Day Camp is a place where children with cancer, as well as their brothers and sisters, can enjoy being children, albeit for a day at a time. By the end of the first summer, we expanded into year-round services, and this year there are fifteen fun-filled programs planned throughout the school year. There are also family days, hospital visits for campers who have to be readmitted, and even programming within the hospital for children who are waiting for their chemotherapy.

And we’re not stopping there. Sunrise in New York will continue to expand, and we are working with partners overseas to establish a sister camp in Israel.

We fill our camp with images of butterflies, as many of our children, whenever they’ve been hospitalized, refer to them as a metaphor for spreading their wings and regaining their freedom.

It also reminds us of “The Butterfly Effect,” a scientific theory that allows for the possibility that a single small act, such as a butterfly fluttering its wings, can have an impact on events far greater than the initial act, and without the knowledge of the originator.

Without ever intending to, or knowing what they had done, Paul McCartney and Paul Newman set into motion a chain of events that led to the creation of a small miracle that has affected hundreds of children with cancer and their siblings.

The Beatles were right. All you need is love.

~Arnie Preminger

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