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Camp Sunrise keeps going

Local benefactor helps day camp for kids with cancer and their siblings

Prepandemic, this day camper had a happy summer at the Sunrise camp in Pearl River. (Sunrise  Association)
Prepandemic, this day camper had a happy summer at the Sunrise camp in Pearl River. (Sunrise Association)

About 16 years ago, Arnie Preminger attended a benefit concert for Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang sleepaway camps for children with serious illnesses and for their siblings as well. 

At the time, Mr. Preminger was in the 20th year of his nearly 30-year stint as chief executive officer of the Friedberg JCC in Oceanside on Long Island’s south shore.

“We were running 10 or 11 summer day camps at the JCC and I was curious if anyone was doing day camps for children with cancer,” he recalled. “I started talking to hospitals that work with pediatric cancer, and they said there is no alternative to sleepaway camps.” There were no alternative day camps available.

But sleepaway camp — with its weeklong session — was not possible for many children with illnesses, including those undergoing active chemotherapy. Nor would a day camp be feasible, unless there were a critical mass of qualified children within commuting distance.

Mr. Preminger, who has a master’s degree in social work, launched an effort involving his board, donors, the UJA Federation, and local government officials, working to start a free, nonsectarian summer day camp at the JCC for kids with cancer and their healthy siblings. 

“We saw this as an act of tikkun olam — healing the world — and a way to involve younger people for whom tikkun olam was not just about healing the Jewish world,” Mr. Preminger said. “It gave an opportunity for them to do that within a Jewish framework.

“That inspired donors with whom we had not been successful for other JCC programming. So it enhanced the JCC at the same time as it enhanced the lives of these kids and their families.”

After 18 months of planning and building partnerships, the first Sunrise Day Camp session began in the summer of 2006.

Today, the Sunrise Association — with Mr. Preminger as its helm — operates five summer day camps in the United States and three in Israel, plus 43 weekly Sunrise on Wheels in-hospital programs for 5,000 children, and a variety of year-round events. All of this has directly impacted more than 16,000 families since that first camp opened at the Friedberg JCC.

Covid-19 has forced Sunrise to reimagine its programs to fit the virtual space. 

Its most recent summer day camp was digital, enrolling about 1,750 children from Atlanta, Baltimore, Long Island, Pearl River, Staten Island, and Israel. “That’s about 90 percent of the number we had in person the summer before,” Mr. Preminger said. “That surprised us.

“We had about 50 live interactive sessions available every day and we sent out boxes to the kids every week filled with supplies so they could participate during the week in whatever activity they wanted to sign up for.”

In addition, Sunrise on Screens brings virtual content into homes and hospitals, Sunrise on Wheels sends curated arts-and-crafts kits and gift packages to children in hospitals, and Support from Sunrise provides information and referrals to Sunrise campers’ families. 

All Sunrise content and programming are offered free of charge. But they cost money to produce. And that is where Essex County philanthropist Richard Ross comes in.

Mr. Ross has donated $1 million to establish the Dorothy and Irving Ross Sunrise Studios, named in tribute to his parents. The studios will be based at Sunrise Association headquarters in Oceanside, and it will coordinate with Sunrise programs in the United States and Israel. 

“I’ve been working with Sunrise about 10 years,” Mr. Ross said. As the donor adviser to the Frances Davis Fund — named for his grandmother — and the Diane and Richard Ross Fund, he favors projects that improve the lives of children and seniors. “We first donated a stage in the Long Island Sunrise camp where kids could perform,” he said. “When we met with the counselors and Beth and Arnie Preminger, we were very impressed with the spirit of the camp and how that spirit permeated to the kids. Here was a group of children with cancer and their siblings, smiling, having fun, running around and doing what kids do.”

Mr. Ross since has funded more programs, including Sunrise on Wheels at Morristown Medical Center. “When I was able to secure additional funding recently, there was no choice in our minds where it would go,” he said. 

“With current conditions, and even after covid is gone, there’s a large segment of children in hospitals or unable to leave home to go to camp because they don’t feel well enough or they live too far away. We wanted to create an avenue for them to join in. 

“So we challenged Beth and Arnie to come to us with ideas where to utilize this kind of grant. They brought us several good concepts, but the idea of studios to produce content for kids unable to come to camp hit home with us.”

A director and program team are in place, and a Sunrise app is being developed so kids can access the content from their phones. Content also will be available via closed-circuit TV in pediatric oncology units.

“The studios will allow us to curate what we have already done, to do more programming and to upgrade the level,” Mr. Preminger said. “We’ve learned so much about moving to virtual programming and seeing its benefits.”

Some examples of content: “Wheels Up,” a 25-minute travelogue, takes children on virtual tours to see such sights as the African savannah and the seven wonders of the world, paired with a trivia game and simple art project they can do even from a hospital bed. Seven-minute “Sunrise on Screens” videos demonstrate fun activities children can do or watch – such as a magic trick or a dance – while sitting in a chemotherapy unit.

As always, the content keeps healthy siblings in mind too.

“Siblings are the forgotten children – not intentionally, but because of the greater needs of the sick child — and we heard from the start the value of including them,” Mr. Preminger said. “In our camps, they are with other kids who understand what they are going through.”

He explained that he decided to open a Sunrise Day Camp in Israel after a 2008 visit to the Jewish state. “I saw the numbers of children with cancer were similar to New York’s and the country is geographically small so we could pick up kids within a reasonable drive time,” he said. “We built national partnerships in Israel and opened our first camp in 2010.

“Now we have three Sunrise camps in Israel serving the south, center, and north, plus two Sunrise on Wheels inpatient and outpatient programs in seven hospitals, serving 1,500 children annually from 96 communities.” About 40 percent of the campers and staff are Arab.

“Once the pandemic has passed and we can resume in-person programming, we will then be able to integrate our virtual content into our existing camp and hospital programs, increasing our reach to thousands more children with cancer who either cannot attend a Sunrise program for health reasons or who might live beyond our current service areas,” Mr. Preminger said.

“Richard Ross and his family have been incredible supporters. It showed so much vision and forethought to make a million-dollar gift at this time, to enable us to reach more people while most agencies are struggling to reach those they already serve.”

For more information, email Beth Fetner, Sunrise Association’s senior vice president of development, at beth.fetner@sunriseassociation.org.

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