When Sarasota resident Jay Riley was 12 years old, he was diagnosed with leukemia. For three summers, he attended Happiness is Camping, a Hardwick, N. J., summer camp for children with cancer. He says the camp provided an escape and helped him cope with his treatments.
“It was the first time I’d ever been to sleep-away camp,” says Riley. “It was great to be surrounded by kids going through the same thing. It took my mind off of the stress of my everyday problems and treatment and put me in a different place.”
Now, more than 20 years later, Riley says he has a better appreciation for the lasting impact the camp had on his life.
“Of course, you appreciate it at the time,” he says. “But, it wasn’t until I got older that I realized how much it meant for these people to volunteer their time to help brighten my day.”
Two years ago, Riley attended the camp’s 30th anniversary, and he reconnected with former campers and counselors. He decided to return again as a volunteer.
Last month, Riley, and his best friend and former Olympic gold medalist swimmer, Tripp Schwenk, traveled to New Jersey to volunteer as counselors at the camp.
“Jay is my best friend,” says Schwenk. “I know what he went through as a kid, and I know the impact the camp had on his life. He asked me if I would go with him, and I jumped at the idea. It’s such a great cause.”
The two men joined other athletes and helped campers learn to swim, play dodgeball and football and just enjoy their time at camp.
“It’s very therapeutic,” says Riley. “That’s why I wanted to come back, because I know what it did for me. I tell stories about this camp, and it feels like it was just yesterday — that’s how powerful this camp is.”
Contact Nick Friedman at [email protected].