For Michelle Munson, Camp Sunshine is better than Christmas.
Michelle, the daughter of Don and Elizabeth Munson of Simpsonville, has autism and myotonic muscular dystrophy, making it hard for her to attend typical summer camps. But for the past 10 years, Michelle has had a chance to be an average child when Don and Elizabeth drop her off at Camp Sunshine for the weekend.
“She has such a great time,” Elizabeth said. “She talks about going all year. And, it gives us a weekend of respite and she enjoys the time away from us.”
Founded in 1993, by Charlie White, a former Clemson Outdoor Laboratory director, Camp Sunshine is a respite camp for parents of children with special needs. It’s held six weekends a year at the Clemson Outdoor Laboratory to serve children and adults who have little to no opportunity for camp experiences.
“The camp helps children who have needs beyond what our typical summer campers experience,” said Charlie. “They often need one-on-one supervision and help with the basic necessities of daily life.”
Because of support from Doris Buffett and her organization, The Sunshine Lady Foundation, the camp has helped hundreds of children and their families through the years, like the Munsons.
The Sunshine Lady Foundation is run by the same small board of directors who have worked alongside Doris since it was founded in 1996. Since it’s inception, the Sunshine Lady Foundation has awarded more than $130 million in grants.
An Omaha native, Doris was no stranger to hardship. She has experienced emotional abuse, medical complications and financial hardships. But with the support of friends she continued to have a positive outlook on life, according to a biography of Doris Buffett, “Giving it All Away.”
But, what fuels her to support complete strangers? Empathy, said Mitty Beal, Executive Director of the Sunshine Lady Foundation and close friend of Doris.
“I would say the source is empathy as well as an ability to see the big picture,” Mitty said. “Throughout her life, she has been intolerant of people who didn’t see suffering and didn’t feel the humanity of the people suffering, and who did nothing when they were able to do something. It just wasn’t in her nature to do nothing.”
Doris gave a few annual gifts to the Outdoor Lab, and then created a $1 million endowment to ensure that the camp would continue its role in the community: giving parents a respite.
Mitty said that Doris chose to support the Clemson respite camps because she has a passion to help others and wanted to help those who were caregivers.
“Doris has a deep appreciation of the strain and relentless demands of caring for a disabled child or adult,” Mitty said. “She has loved being able to help caretakers find a little time for themselves while their children were at camp knowing their charges were safe and stimulated. She also thought the world of Charlie White and was confident the camp was exceptionally well run.”
Because of Doris’s support, which began in 1998, White named the camp after the Sunshine Lady Foundation. After the name change, White started a new tradition that continues to this day.
After each camp session, parents send letters to Doris so she’d know the importance of her generosity.
“I was on a phone conversation and her assistant told me ‘Every letter that we get from Camp Sunshine parents, I read aloud to Doris and she loves hearing them,’” said Clemson Outdoor Laboratory director Leslie Conrad. “Every single one they read.”
And Mitty remembers reading those letters.
“They are beautiful. Parents would thank Doris for making it possible for them to have an evening out for dinner or for the movies – small freedoms that most of us take for granted,” Mitty said. “I remember a letter thanking Doris for giving them the opportunity to lie outside on the lawn and look at the stars knowing the child was safely away at camp.”
And one of those letters that Doris and Mitty read was from Mike and Brenda Cannon of Anderson. They have two children with special needs, and Camp Sunshine has meant the world to them
“We are so grateful we have this,” Brenda said. “We know how few and far between services are, especially in the earlier years. It’s been a blessing for our family.”
For a parent of a special needs child, there is no break. They are a parent 24/7 for many more years than the average parent, and the parents say the camps offer a peace of mind for the them.
“It means respite for us. We know he’s in a secure place where people know him and take care of him. Since day one, we never had questions about his care or his well-being,” Mike said. “Once he’s there, we go on vacation. One year we went to a movie. Camp Sunshine gives us an opportunity to be normal people for a few days.”
While the parents and camp employees are grateful for Doris’s gift, Leslie believes that her gift is more than just financial support.
“The impact of her gift is infinite. It just keeps giving,” Leslie said. “The families get some time to recharge and refresh. The camp impacts our staff, our counselors, campers and caregivers. Our counselors and staff are touched by the campers and changed by them. Through the years that the Sunshine Lady Foundation has supported us, countless people have been influenced somehow by their time at Camp Sunshine. I think the impact on people is the gift Doris gave.”
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