As the sun catches on the horizon of Camp Rising Sun, nine-year-old Sam Ottenhof awakens to another day of fun-filled activities at summer camp.
With the tradition and culture of camp still brand new to the first-time camper, Ottenhof is taking in the delightful chaos of Camp Rising Sun as he goes. Since his arrival, he has been whisked away in a blur of swimming, shooting hoops, archery and his all-time favorite: playing in the arcade.
“I’m always entertained and always doing something at camp which is really fun,” Ottenhof said.
Camp Rising Sun is an oasis for kids like Ottenhof seeking a normal summer camp experience.
The camp is designed for children who are either currently fighting a battle with cancer or are in remission and operates from Monday to Sunday. Children from ages six to 16 are invited to attend the camp at no cost with a plus one of a friend or sibling. They must have a physical from their doctor to attend camp and — since the pandemic started — a negative Covid test.
During their time at camp, the children enjoy a variety of activities such as swimming, arts and crafts, camp fires, archery, laser tag, movie nights, scavenger hunts and more.
It was established in 1987 after the Junior Auxiliary board at the time decided they wanted to implement a camp for children with cancer in the community. Ten years after its founding, the camp was taken over by an independent board of volunteers and has been running on donations and volunteers ever since.
Historically, the camp has been held at Camp Pratt in Lowndes County until it moved in 2020 because a private owner bought the camp and was no longer interested in hosting a summer camp there.
After 33 years of memories, the camp — and 24 campers — have moved to Camp Timberlake in Millport, Alabama for the first time.
Allison Kizer, president of the camp’s board and co-director, has been a part of the Camp Rising Sun community since 2003 and has kept the camp running through the location change. Kizer’s relationship formed from a random afternoon of volunteer work and has flourished ever since.
“I tell people I came for a day. I literally came for an afternoon to volunteer and then I asked to come back the next day and the next. And I’ve never left. I’ve come back every year,” she said.
With its roots still deeply attached to Lowndes County, Kizer works closely with members of the county to keep the camp operating.
A majority of the food provided to the camp comes from restaurants in the Lowndes County area and most of the staff are volunteers from the county who have a lifelong connection with the camp.
“I mean, most of our board are either in Lowndes County now or have been and may have gone off to work somewhere for a job,” Kizer said. “It is a Lowndes County project. The Junior Auxiliary started it. A Lowndes County group of people got together and formed a board and raised money to be able to fund it and keep going.”
Even though the location has changed, the Lowndes County impact proudly shines through.
Lane Myers, a Madison native, became an official counselor at the age 21 after a long history with the camp. He first attended Camp Rising Sun in 2006 after finishing his cancer treatment and formed a strong attachment with the camp and the Lowndes County community.
“I was 11 years old. I had never been to summer camp and had finished my cancer treatment in 2004,” Myers said. “So, this was my first real experience, first time getting to do a lot of things that, you know, most kids get to experience at summer camps and then just using a ball and stuff like that.”
Myers fell in love with the camp and community instantaneously. He kept coming back every year until he enrolled in the counselor training program at age 17 to become an official counselor at age 21. Now, he dedicates his time to forming bonds with the children at camp and ensuring the best time possible for them.
“It’s amazing. I see myself in a lot of these kids and seeing them discover new things that they like and realize that they really can do anything that any other kid can do, even though they might have to do it differently,” Myers said.
To Kizer and Myers, the camp is an escape to a safe place for the children that continue to come back every year.
“We hope to let them just be kids for a week with no worries. They don’t have to worry about anything while they’re here,” Kizer said. “The focus is on them having fun, having a good time, you know, just a kid being a kid.”
As the campers pack up to head back home, they leave with a new trove of memories. Among those kids is 13-year-old Lane Sims who leaves with a bundle of new friends and an attachment to the community.
During his time at camp, he enjoyed the simplicities of life by swimming, meeting new people, fishing, sitting around the campfires and playing air hockey at the arcade with the other children. Sims described his experience at camp as fun, cool and fascinating.
Through the camp and the community, Lowndes County and the volunteers of Camp Rising Sun have made a tremendous impact on the children that attend each year. Each child leaves with a sense of gratification and the anticipation of next year’s summer.
As they say, everyone is No. 1 at Camp Rising Sun.