The mission of Camp Sunshine is to provide a camping experience for persons with developmental disabilities in an inclusive environment that embraces their recreational, emotional, physical, spiritual and relational needs.
Camp Sunshine was established in 1983 at the request of parents who wanted their children with special needs to have the same opportunity to experience summer camp as other children and young adults. The late Marcy Vanderwel planned and implemented the original Camp Sunshine program at Geneva Camp and Conference Center that provided a one-to-one ratio between campers and counselors.
There were twenty-three campers in the first year of operation. That year, the staff consisted of two nurses, a chaplain, a musician, and an arts and craft director. Camp counselors included college students, high school students, and others recruited from the community. Since Marcy was teaching at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, she was able to develop a program that offered college credit for camp counselors from Hope who completed the experience and wrote a paper describing it–a collaboration that is still in place.
The demand for this type of camping experience was tremendous, and Camp Sunshine began to grow immediately. By 1989, Camp Sunshine began offering two five-day sessions in order to accommodate all of the campers who wanted to attend.
In October 1998, Marcy passed the torch to Cindy Terlouw, the current executive director. Camp Sunshine was incorporated as a non-profit 501(c)3, and a Board of Directors was established to govern the organization. In the year 2000, Camp Sunshine relocated to Camp Blodgett, located along the Lake Michigan shoreline in West Olive, Michigan. Since that time, Camp Sunshine has offered two four-day sessions.
In 2012 the Board of Directors adopted a strategic plan to lay the groundwork for growth and long-term sustainability. A major focus of the plan was expansion, and the board commissioned a feasibility study in early 2013 to research growth options. Due to calendar limitations at Camp Blodgett, it was necessary to find another facility to host additional sessions of camp. After considering more than thirty locations in west Michigan, Camp Sunshine agreed to partner with Camp Henry in Newaygo to offer two additional sessions. In 2014 Camp Sunshine begins offering four sessions–two at Camp Blodgett and two at Camp Henry.
The Camp Sunshine program staff plans and implements a creative, innovative camp every summer. The one-to-one relationship between camper and counselor continues to be the most essential component for the success of the program. Current camp staff includes a team of musicians, a chaplain, two recreation directors, an arts & crafts director, four nurses, an on-call physician, a recruiter, and the executive director.
Each year features a different theme such as Camp Sunshine Goes Green, Super Hero, and I am an Artist. Food, activities, arts & crafts, spiritual lessons, music and recreation are all based on that year’s theme. Programming includes opportunities for education, leadership and practicing communication skills. Each day includes activities that promote health and physical fitness. Music plays a prominent role at camp with campers singing together every morning, afternoon, and evening. To honor our founder Marcy Vanderwel, there is a special event at camp each summer such as a petting zoo, elephant rides or African drumming. The finale of camp is the talent show that showcases the wonderful spirit and talents of our campers.
While we have roots in the Christian tradition, we are inclusive and welcoming to people of all faith traditions or no faith tradition. There is an open spirit about Camp Sunshine that is transformative for every person who attends–campers, counselors, and volunteers. We promote through words and actions an atmosphere that honors all people with total acceptance and unconditional love. In every session of camp, we recognize the sacredness of being part of a community where everyone is loved and accepted “just the way they are.”