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A ray of sunshine: Program creates good times for teenage cancer patients
Tuesday, July 13, 2010 | Special to the Log
twelve year old Destiney Limon is just like any other pre-teen girl in America. She loves pop-sensation Justin Bieber and her favorite TV show is iCarly. But unlike most pre-teens, she has cancer.
“I didn’t know what cancer meant, and I didn’t react like I was supposed to,” Destiney said. “I shouldn’t have been able to walk or talk, but they called me a miracle child.”
A freezing chill running through her body and a horrible headache were the first signs of a battle Destiney began to fight several years ago. After her first diagnosis—doctors originally said she had one year to live—Destiney’s mother decided to move her to M.D. Anderson where she found out about Sunshine Kids.
According to the organization’s website, Sunshine Kids was founded in 1982 by volunteer Rhoda Tomasco, who worked in the pediatric cancer unit at M.D. Anderson in Houston. Inspired by her mother who died of breast cancer, Sunny Ernst began bringing children battling cancer into her lake house home on Lake Travis for a weekend of fun and relaxation.
“This weekend is about teenagers having fun, and these kids realizing that people who don’t even know them care about them and are there for them,” she said.
Ernst partnered with Sunshine Kids to realize that vision, and since then the program has sent children on the annual “Teen Lake Escape” that started with 15 children at Ernst’s lake house to some 400 kids who have visited Lake Travis.
“It gets big and better ever year, with more and more people willing to help out,” Ernst said. “It is really awesome because now we have second and third-year generation people who come back as volunteers, coming in and helping out with the kids and giving back.”
This escape was held at Jim and Linda McIngvale’s house, the owner of Gallery Furniture in Houston, for the second year. From tennis to bowling to boating, visitors could choose from a variety of activities. Out on the lake, they could catch a yacht ride on the MY Legacy, compliments of Lakeway Marina and Capt. Chris James, and parasailing compliments of Richard and Anita Welch of Airscape Parasailing.
“These kids are given the opportunity to have fun and learn how to do new things, like how to parasail; they realize they can do things other teenagers can do,” Ernst said.
Victoria Villanueva, 13, is one of Destiney’s best friends, and although they live an hour apart, they were able to meet through Sunshine Kids. Victoria is in remission: her cancer is mostly gone, but she is monitored regularly to detect any signs of a relapse.
“My favorite thing about Sunshine Kids is hanging out with the kids who still have cancer because I can help give them hope, and give back to those who gave hope to me,” Victoria said.
Destiney typically doesn’t tell other kids that she has cancer.
“I had a friend I told who went and spread rumors about me at school, and kids begin to make fun of me because of it,” she said.
At Sunshine Kids, Destiney doesn’t have to worry about being made fun of and has friends who can relate to her affliction.
“They get to talk to other kids who are going through the same things,” Ernst said. “They feed off each other, learn from each other. And we have kids come back and do it again, and share with new ones.”
Marian Taylor, a foundation nurse from Dell Children’s Hospital in Austin, has traveled with Sunshine Kids to Hawaii and other trips. She said she has witnessed the impact of the non-profit organization.
“Sunshine Kids gives kids the chance to meet other kids in similar situations, and this is especially important with other teenagers,” she said. “When you are a teenager, there is so much emphasis on body image and appearance and all the changes your body is going through, and it is difficult to withstand the judgment.”
Taylor believes what makes the organization so unique is the strong support it receives from the community. From worldwide Whole Foods to local Lago Vista and Austin businesses like Dee Dee’s Tacos & More, Bert’s BBQ, Lake Travis Powerboat Association, Austin Screen Printing and Lakeway Marina, the Teen Lake Escape is funded and supported by the community.
“The best thing about Sunshine Kids is their charity and how they can just give so freely,” said 15-year-old Elizabeth Chapdelaine from Houston. “You can tell everyone here has a lot of heart.”
Sunshine Kids focuses solely on children with cancer. All expenses are paid for, and there is a clubhouse in Houston for children of all ages. The organization also visits those battling cancer in the hospital. Four children from the Dell Children’s Hospital were chosen to be a part of the escape and the other 18 were chosen from the Houston area based on how each child would benefit emotionally and socially from the trip, Taylor said.
A vital part of Sunshine Kids, according to participants and volunteers, is the children themselves, from the hope and joy they bring to the smiles and encouragement for others going through similar situations.
“I encourage other kids who go through what I went through to always have faith and never say never,” Victoria said.
Destiney is also in remission, and although her cancer isn’t curable, she says it’s a miracle that she is still alive, having survived the original date doctors had given her.
“There is a reason God gave me this cancer, and I will find out that reason one day,” she said.
For now, Destiney is focused on attending more Sunshine Kids trips and hopes to one day become a doctor.
“Any time any child is facing such challenges, being around them you learn more than you could ever teach them,” Marian said. “These kinds of organizations are worth investing in, because kids really benefit from them.”
Victoria and Destiney laugh and talk as they splash in the pool next to Lake Travis and share stories and experiences that have impacted them.
“I tell other kids who have cancer to never give up or lose hope,” Destiney said. “Sunshine Kids really represents helping making kids dreams come true.”
—Kelsey Wesolick, Staff Intern