Jason Kirkland paints T-shirts with Keionna Livingston, 8, during Camp Rising Sun at Camp Pratt on Monday. Keionna's parents are Tiara and Keith Livingston of Memphis. Kirkland came to Camp Rising Sun as a camper 30 years ago and has being volunteering as a camp counselor for 24 years. Photo by: Deanna Robinson/Dispatch Staff
Darius Miller, 12, leaps into the pool during Camp Rising Sun at Camp Pratt on Monday. Darius' mother is Monchella Miller of Columbus.
Photo by: Deanna Robinson/Dispatch Staff
Nick Taylor, 11, shows off his hula-hooping skills during Camp Rising Sun at Camp Pratt on Monday. Nick's parents are Anne and J. Lee Taylor of Olive Branch.
Photo by: Deanna Robinson/Dispatch Staff
June 13, 2017 10:28:28 AM
Jason Kirkland caught a plane in Los Angeles this week bound for Lowndes County.
Though 2,000 miles from home, when he arrived Monday at Camp Henry Pratt near the Noxubee County line off Highway 45 South, he entered familiar territory and began immediately seeing friendly, familiar faces.
This year is Kirkland's 24th at Camp Rising Sun, a camp geared toward children suffering from cancer. The McComb native was among the program's original campers 30 years ago, then a 9-year-old attending alongside his brother Jarome, who was undergoing cancer treatments at the time.
Jason still comes each year he can manage to serve as a camp counselor, and he doesn't miss often. Most of the time, Jarome -- who lives in Tupelo -- comes along, as well. But work obligations kept him from it this year, Jason said.
"As a camper, it was great, because whether it was someone who had cancer, or just a sibling they brought along, we got to come and be a kid for that week," Jason said. "But I feel like I enjoy it much more now as a counselor than I did as a camper, and I appreciate now what the staff members did for us. It's an opportunity to give back."
The Columbus Junior Auxiliary founded Camp Rising Sun in 1987, and the annual camp began its 30th year Monday, welcoming 48 campers -- ages 6 to 16 -- from Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee for a week of outdoor adventures. Children suffering from cancer, as well as their siblings, are welcome.
Among the camp's many benefits, co-director Allison Kizer said normalcy ranks highest. At Camp Rising Sun, she said, no matter the campers' situations, it allows them to just be a regular kid for a week.
"Nobody asks questions here, and the children that attend aren't just 'that kid with cancer,'" Kizer said. "Everyone gets treated the same. They just get to be a camper."
Throughout the week, campers will participate in many traditional camping activities, including archery, riflery, canoing and fishing, as well as activities that are unique to Camp Rising Sun.
This year, campers will compete in Olympic-style games and a laser tag competition, as well as attend the annual Friday night dance.
The staff is strictly volunteer-based and made up of overnight camp counselors, counselors-in-training and day volunteers; the majority of volunteers were campers when they were children or have served as a staff member for a decade or longer.
Kizer said although some may take a break, most staff members return each year, acknowledging the close-knit environment and lifelong relationships made at the camp.
"Everyone here just wants to be a part of something that helps the kids," Kizer said. "They spend a week here just having fun and we all get to be a part of that experience. That's why I do it, and I think that's why everyone else comes back, too."
Counselor-in-training Deion Griffin, 19, and current camp counselor Laurel Collins, 22, both said they've made lasting friendships at the camp because they knew they could find a familiar face each summer.
"When I first came here, I connected with people who really molded me into the person I am today. Coming back as a counselor, I got to reconnect with all of those people I made friendships with as a camper," Griffin said.
Emma Taylor, 13, was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma in 2008 and has attended Camp Rising Sun for the last five years. Fortunately, Taylor has been in remission since 2010. She said the camp has given her a second family, one to which she can relate on many levels, due to campers' similar circumstances.
Like many current staff members did, Taylor added confidently, she wants to come back as a camp counselor when she is older.
"It's always the same people here every year, and they ended up becoming a family," Taylor said. "I never build up enough excitement when I first get here, but by the last day, I end up crying because I just don't want to leave anyone."
1. Parents' complaints lead to investigation of CMSD special education department COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY
2. 22-year sentence for man with multiple counts of child molestation COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY
3. Students leaving CMSD at alarming rate COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY
5. Second murder trial ends in hung jury COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY