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Camp Rising Sun: For campers and counselors, this special camp is a 'second family'

 

Camp Rising Sun camper Matt Hutchinson of Starkville, center, and his mother, Audrey Hutchinson, employ teamwork during an Arts and Crafts session Wednesday. Volunteer camp counselor Carl Miller, right, checks in on progress. Camp Rising Sun is an annual week-long camp in Columbus for children who have or have had cancer.

Camp Rising Sun camper Matt Hutchinson of Starkville, center, and his mother, Audrey Hutchinson, employ teamwork during an Arts and Crafts session Wednesday. Volunteer camp counselor Carl Miller, right, checks in on progress. Camp Rising Sun is an annual week-long camp in Columbus for children who have or have had cancer. Photo by: Mary Alice Weeks/Dispatch Staff

 

Launch Photo Gallery

 

Mother and son make their way across the campgrounds Wednesday. Camp Rising Sun is held at the YMCA Camp Henry Pratt in Lowndes County.

Mother and son make their way across the campgrounds Wednesday. Camp Rising Sun is held at the YMCA Camp Henry Pratt in Lowndes County.
Photo by: Mary Alice Weeks/Dispatch Staff

 

Carl Miller, left, and Matt Hutchinson, 16, work together on Matt’s art project Wednesday.

Carl Miller, left, and Matt Hutchinson, 16, work together on Matt’s art project Wednesday.
Photo by: Mary Alice Weeks/Dispatch Staff

 

Jamie Hutchinson, Matt Hutchinson’s 10-year-old sister, accompanied her brother at Camp Rising Sun.

Jamie Hutchinson, Matt Hutchinson’s 10-year-old sister, accompanied her brother at Camp Rising Sun.
Photo by: Mary Alice Weeks/Dispatch Staff

 

 

Sarah Fowler

 

Matt Hutchinson was diagnosed with cancer when he was 3 years old. The toddler had a tumor on his brain, and doctors were doubtful he would survive without radiation. 

 

Thirteen years later, the Starkville native is a smiling teenager who brings joy to nearly everyone he encounters. As Hutchinson maneuvers his wheelchair through the grounds at Camp Rising Sun, a camp for children who have or are currently battling cancer, people call out to him. As he passes the basketball courts and children in the pool yelling "Marco Polo" at the Frank Phillips YMCA Camp Pratt, where Camp Rising Sun is held, almost everyone stops to speak to Matt. 

 

"Hey Matt, how ya doing? See you at Arts and Crafts?" one passerby yells out. 

 

As the 16-year-old makes his way to a building affectionately known as "The Chicken Coop" for Arts and Crafts, his mother talks about what Camp Rising Sun means to her family. 

 

"It's somewhere these kids can come, you know, that they don't have to worry about doctors, they're around people who have gone through the same thing that they've gone through," Audrey Hutchinson said Wednesday. "We plan vacations around camp; we call it 'Matt's Camp.'"  

 

Matt has attended Camp Rising Sun since 2007. His sister, Jamie, also attends the camp. As part of Camp Rising Sun bylaws, siblings of those who have battled cancer may attend as well. 

 

Jaime Hutchinson said her week at camp is "the best time of her life." 

 

"It's fun to make new friends and play with your friends and ride bikes and all that," she said. She was quick to add, though, that her favorite part is the camp's zipline. And jet skis. And arts and crafts. 

 

"I like everything," she said, laughing. 

 

The 10-year-old said she likes going to camp with her brother because it's a time for him to experience camp that he may have missed out on otherwise. 

 

"It's a camp that cancer kids can come to and they can actually go to a camp and have fun and have the people that are like them," she said. Speaking of Matt, she added, "He kind of looks different and some people might not know what he went through, so it's good for him to come here." 

 

Once inside the Chicken Coop, Matt's counselor, Carl Miller, begins measuring his wheelchair for a game the campers will play later that night. While Matt cannot participate in many of the activities, Miller makes sure the teenager feels included. Miller has written camp counselors' initials on the wheels on Matt's chair. Later in the evening, Matt will drive his motorized chair down the dock near the lake. When he stops, whoever's initials the wheels stops on gets pushed in lake. Tuesday night, four counselors ended up in the water, Miller said with a laugh. 

 

All of the counselors are good sports about it, Miller said, adding, "Matt's Mr. Popular. Everybody loves Matt." Wednesday, Miller was adding decorations to Matt's wheels for the game that night, to "make it a little more fancy." 

 

Miller, who is in the U.S. Air Force, was stationed in Columbus for three years but is currently stationed in Washington, D.C. However, he comes back to Columbus to volunteer at Camp Rising Sun. 

 

"I love working with these kids," he said. "I was lucky enough to come out here my first year. I got an email like everybody on base did, and when I came out, I just fell in love with the place. I can't imagine not being here each year. It's the most important thing in my life to come out every summer and work with these guys and girls. It's just an absolutely incredible place. It's a big family. You really can't beat it." 

 

Before camp, Miller sent Matt a package from Air Force One, including an Air Force One baseball hat and M&M's from the famous plane with the Presidential Seal emblazoned on the packaging. 

 

When asked why he comes back year after year, Miller said he does it for the children and the sense of family. 

 

"I just like seeing them happy and having a good time and not worrying about other things, you know, that are going on in life and being able to cut loose and be a kid for a week," he said. "To be a part of that is really special. They welcome me with open arms and into their family, and that's been really special for me. It's like a second family here, being part of this group. That's why I keep coming back." 

 

 

 

'Awesome people' 

 

Miller's sentiments of the camp being like a family seem to permeate throughout the grounds. Counselors consistently said they volunteer because they love seeing the children having fun. The camp has 25 overnight counselors. The number of day volunteers fluctuates from 30 to 40. This year, 43 children attended the week-long overnight camp.  

 

Elizabeth Yates, president of the Camp Rising Sun Board, said she would rather volunteer at the camp for one week than go on a traditional vacation. Yates, 33, has been volunteering at the camp since she was 18. 

 

"It's one of those things that if you could rather have a vacation or come to camp, you come to camp," she said. 

 

Yates said most of the counselors have been working at the camp for years. 

 

"Most of our counselors are repeat," she said. "It's a very rewarding experience; it's very humbling I think. It's one of those things that you want to come out here for the experience and you can't help but come back." 

 

Miller agreed, and said those who have never volunteered are missing out. 

 

"If you've never had a chance to experience something like working with a child or just being around such a happy, awesome group of people, you will get a thousand times more out of this than what you put into it," he said. "This is my favorite part of the year. They give back to you so much more than you could ever put in."

 

Sarah Fowler covers crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.

 

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