RUTLEDGE - In a sea of smiling faces, it was difficult to tell who was having the most fun Wednesday at Camp Sunshine.
There, members of the Georgia Bulldogs took on a team of some of Georgia's toughest young fighters in an impromptu game of touch football, an experience that left tight end Jay Rome with a true understanding of what courage really is.
"It was just great to see all the kids happy, out there playing with us and out there playing just as hard as they could," Rome said. "You know what these kids are going through, but they're out there just like regular kids."
At Camp Sunshine, smiles are given out for free.
What began as a summer camp program for children diagnosed with cancer, is now a thriving, loving and inspirational community that now hosts a pair of week-long camps for children to 12 years of age, and another for teenagers 13-18, held this time each summer at Camp Twin Lake, a 500-acre facility here in Rutledge that specializes in offering therapeutic and recreational camps for children with serious illness, along with other physical and emotional challenges.
Wednesday's visit to the camp - the second in as many weeks by the Bulldogs - left quite the impression.
"The first time you walk through and you see the facilities and hear about the people, it doesn't really hit you until you see the face of a kid, or you see a kid who has got a discolored face or something like that, and they're still smiling, still enjoying life," sophomore wide receiver Chris Conley said. "It really touches you and makes you say 'Wow, this is such a special place.'"
For senior defensive end Cornelius Washington, this was his second trip to Camp Sunshine in as many years.
"The last time I was here, I really enjoyed it and it is a good experience. Just try to shine a light on kids who need it, and just to be plain and simple, it's the right thing to do," he said. "It really brings you back down to earth, because it makes you realize that things could be so much worse for you.
"People don't think about that, but the next guy may be going through something so much worse than you, so you should just be thankful for the things that you have. When I come out here and these kids are going through so much, but they're still thankful for the things they do have, and getting to run around out here, it's just a blessing all around."
Mo Thrash, a member of Camp Sunshine's Board of Directors and a UGA grad, couldn't agree with that statement more.
Since his son's death in 1977 from leukemia at age three, Thrash has dedicated his life to improving the lives of children with cancer. He has raised funds for cancer research and was a key figure in initiating state legislation that now assures that kids with cancer have access to clinical trials and the latest treatments. The bill, named "Callaway's Law," after Thrash's son, was signed by former Governor Zell Miller in 1998.
"Just look across here, look at the smiles. I am not kidding you when I tell you this; some children in the hospital, when we go to talk to them, we say 'hey, come to summer camp.' They're like, I don't know, but when you tell them the Georgia Bulldogs are coming, they can't wait to get here and that's the truth," Thrash said. "It's the same way with the teenagers; the teenagers just went crazy when the Dawgs were here. Ever since Coach (Mark) Richt has been here, the Dawgs have come every year, and they just love it. It means so much to our children."
Many Bulldogs, like Washington, have been here before.
"It's a first-come, first-served signup to come over here, so guys are fighting to get on the list and it's so great to see these guys on and on, it means as much, I think, to them as it does the children," Thrash added. "The first question they ask when they sign up for Summer Camp is "are the Dawgs coming back again?'"
Conley said trips such as this have a way of putting life into its true perspective.
"It's important to me to be able to have the opportunity to affect kids in a positive way, something that may seem too small to us but is so big for them," he said. "I feel they have they have the same affect on us, seeing them, seeing what they go through and what they're able to do regardless of what they have going on. It's really challenging to me, because it makes me step back, take a deep breath and ask the Lord for some forgiveness for complaining and different things that I've done in my life."
It was a memorable trip for all.
During their two-hour stay, the Bulldogs toured the entire facility, met with most of the campers, saw what they did, checked out the on-campus hospital and even took in a Karate demonstration.
"People wake up every day and complain about having to go to work or go to class, but we have the opportunity to do something that others do not," Rome said. "You look at these 9, 10, 12-year old kids who have come down with these horrible conditions and it really makes you look at yourself and feel ashamed about the stuff you complain about when you compare it to the kind of things they are going through."
Conley could not agree more.
"It helps us in so many ways because it makes our issues and our problems seem so small. It really brings out the fact that we're doing something that we love and that the kids would love to be in our places," he said. "It also tells us we'd better perform and we'd better do our best for these people because these kids look up to us and they expect us to do some great things this season."