June 19, 2013

A day for smiles

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RUTLEDGE - The smile on 16-year-old Ashley Jeane's face was impossible to ignore. Neither was the cap perched proudly atop her head.

Jeane beamed a wide smile as she hopped around, giggling as she explained the gift, given to her by Georgia linebacker Kosta Vavlas.

She wasn't the only happy camper.

At Camp Sunshine, there are plenty of smiles to go around.

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 Lakes, 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, members of the Georgia football team dropped by to offer their support.

"The main thing that I like about coming to stuff like this is that it puts things in perspective," senior guard Chris Burnette said. "Stuff that we do, it's fun and people put us on pedestals and think we go through a lot of adversity, but it's nothing like the adversity these guys are going through at such a young age. Seeing them and the courage they have, it's amazing."

Jeane, who has been coming to Camp Sunshine for eight years, couldn't thank the Bulldogs enough.

"It means a lot to these kids because a lot of these kids, because of some of their health problems, they can't go to games and if they can see these football players live, it means a lot to them," she said. "Plus, some of them are really cute."

Wide receiver Michael Bennett was back for his second year. "It's really important to come here and try to give these guys a glimmer of hope. Just seeing their faces kind of light up when we come in is really pretty special, especially for somebody like me," he said. "I'm coming off a knee injury, but it's nothing like what these guys are going through. I consider myself lucky and I pray every day these kids' illnesses are cured."

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. "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."

Georgia's participation actually goes back prior to Richt coming to Athens.

Former head coach Vince Dooley started the tradition, one that was continued by Ray Goff and later by Jim Donnan for one season before Richt resumed UGA's commitment when he took over as head coach in 2001.

"It's a fun time. You get to meet some new friends, it's something they'll remember for life; they'll remember you forever," linebacker Amarlo Herrera said. "It just feels good that you're making somebody else's day."

Players spent two hours at the facility Wednesday, playing a brief game of touch football before breaking off to take part in other events, including archery and basketball.

"It's a great experience to come out here and see these kids who are fighting with cancer but they're having fun and enjoying life," said running back Keith Marshall, who was back for the second time. "This place has taught me a lot. It's taught me to be thankful and realize there's stuff going on in this world besides just football so it's great to be able to make these kids happy. It just feels good to give back because these kids have been through a lot."

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