PASCACK VALLEY, N.J. — Emily Klukosky from Westwood dives into her summer job every weekday with great enthusiasm. Seventeen-year-old Emily is a lifeguard at Camp Sunshine, and her twin sister, Alexandra, is the camp’s games director. Their jobs are extremely challenging, because the camp where they work, Camp Sunshine, specializes in recreational programs for individuals with special needs.
Founded in 1960, Camp Sunshine, located near the scenic Wild Duck Pond area in Ridgewood, is a beacon of light for children and adults with disorders such as cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, autism and various brain injuries and abnormalities. There are up to 70 campers on any given day, ranging in age from 6-50 plus. Campers, staff and volunteers come from all over Bergen County.
Every summer, Camp Sunshine’s nine-week program runs from the third Monday in June through the third Friday in August, and each day provides a host of fun activities from 9 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. Campers participate in daily arts and crafts and sports, go swimming twice during each day in an adapted onsite heated swimming pool, and take field trips to places such as Liberty Science Center.
Camp Sunshine has state of the art facilities, including a playroom, video center, Windows computer network and over 2,000-square-feet of activity space.
Campers are divided into small groups of approximately eight to 12 campers, with the groupings based upon the campers’ ages and abilities. Each camper has one, or sometimes two, volunteers closely assisting them throughout the day.
Besides the fun factor, Camp Sunshine’s programs help campers develop social skills and self-confidence. A father who dropped off his son in a wheel chair in the morning said, “My son loves coming to this camp. This is his fifth year in a row and he has made tremendous progress interacting with people.”
The heart and soul of Camp Sunshine is its staff of professionals, led by Cathy Talerico, and over 60 dedicated volunteers from local schools, churches and community organizations. The volunteers are always upbeat and energetic, and love providing one-to-one care to each camper at the program.
On Aug. 4, campers, staff and volunteers at Camp Sunshine enjoyed one of the camp’s special programs, and it was a sensational double treat. First, the New Jersey Devils mascot appeared in the activity room at 9:30 a.m., and spent 40 minutes hugging the kids, signing hockey books for everyone and posing for pictures with his flock of new friends.
The campers received another surprise visit – from singing prodigy We McDonald and celebrity jazz guitarist Mark Whitfield.
McDonald is an 18-year-old scholarship student attending jazz studies programs at William Paterson University and the New School in New York City. She has studied acting, dance and music and began piano and voice lessons at age 6. She is skilled in classics, jazz, rhythm and blues and opera.
McDonald has won numerous awards, and most recently received national recognition as a finalist on Season 11 of NBC’s “The Voice,” where she wowed audiences as well as celebrity coaches.
At Camp Sunshine, Whitfield began the musical program by playing several solo jazz numbers and then he accompanied McDonald as she performed popular songs, such as Bruno Mars’ “Just the Way You Are.” Everyone was delighted and clapped to the music throughout the performance.
One cannot visit Camp Sunshine without coming away with tremendous admiration for the love and care that every camper receives.
At the end of every non-stop activity-filled day, staff and volunteers at Camp Sunshine go home with a sense of accomplishment, despite the struggles, frustration and pain that they encounter.
Emily Klukosky, like the other volunteers, loves her job working with campers all day, even though it can be exhausting. She said, “There is nothing so rewarding as putting a smile on these kids’ faces and knowing that you have made a difference in their lives!”