Imagine a summer camp in eastern New York. At 10:00 p.m. two fire trucks roll in, and soon joyous whoops charge the air as all of us campers and staff don fire jackets and helmets. We split into two teams and line up opposite each other, each team brandishing a fire hose blasting at 50 psi. The aim of the game is to spray a plastic barrel hanging on a cable above our heads, pushing it to the opposite end. Joey, the nine-year-old at the leading end of our hose, realizes that we are losing the round, so he changes tactics and aims directly at our opponents. Chaos reigns; we are all soaked but happy.
After cleaning up, at about 12:00 midnight, we head out for a campfire to roast marshmallows and have an informal sing-a-long. Everyone is laughing and enjoying the food and fellowship. But the evening is still early. There's more to come – lots more!
This is Camp Sundown, where I volunteered for a week this summer. Founded in 1996, Camp Sundown provides a free retreat for families of children who suffer from Xeroderma Pigmentosum (XP), Erythropoietic Protoporphyria (EPP), and other related sunlight disorders. Because their DNA cannot repair damage from UV exposure, XP kids must avoid sunlight at all costs. Sunlight leads to problems such as cancer, burns, blindness, painful allergic reactions, and eventually early death. Most of us take the life-giving sun for granted – indeed our planet would be dead without it – but for individuals affected by XP, daylight activities must be severely restricted. Naturally this affects social development as well, since it's difficult to form friendships under such circumstances.
Camp Sundown enables XP children, along with their families and friends, to socialize and play freely once the harmful rays of the sun have left the sky. Starting after dinner every night, they enjoy a flurry of outdoor activities – water balloon fights, horse riding, swimming, games, crafts, cookie-making, movies, campfires, talent show – all by the light of the stars and car headlights.
Volunteering at Camp Sundown was great fun, but also a life lesson. Beyond cooking and cleaning and helping with various craft activities, I had ample opportunity just to spend time with families and their children. I got to know many new friends, but I also met people who were not ashamed of sharing their difficulties – and who refused to be crushed by them. The children at Camp Sundown were spunky and happy despite their hardships. I had no idea what they had to deal with every day – they seemed so carefree and full of joy in life. And yet...
Back at home I watch the sun set, and can't help thinking about these children. My life seems so easy and fulfilling when I consider what they're up against. I have friends and work. I enjoy good health, not to mention the glorious light and warmth of the sun. But what about these kids? My future is bright, but what about theirs? Who will be there for them? How will they function and contribute to society, or marry and raise a family, in such a dark world?
The next time I'm tempted to feel depressed or sorry for myself I will remember Camp Sundown. My experience there taught me to treasure the important things of life. And most of all, it taught me to believe for these children – that God has a plan and purpose for their lives, even if it means having to live life after the sun goes down. I don't know what such a life might be like, but I have hope that their lives can be fully and joyously lived – hope kindled by their exuberance and zest, inspiration from their caregivers, and certain knowledge that God has each one of us in his care.