The “happiest place on earth” has come into being in Pike County for one week each of the past 43 years.
That’s how long Camp Sunshine has been held at Percy Quin State Park, spearheaded most of that time by the Junior Auxiliary of McComb.
“The joy is just abundant out there,” JA member Kristen Ratliff, one of the club’s main organizers for the camp, told McComb Lions Club members last week.
The camp has grown from its first incarnation in 1976, when a small group took eight special-needs teenagers for a campout at the park. Just a few years later, JA took on Camp Sunshine as a project.
The camp has now grown to 110 special-needs campers each year, with a daily attendance of up to almost 300 including some day campers, counselors, dorm parents and activity leaders.
In the beginning, “there was just a pop-up tent, and we didn’t need a theme,” said JA member Cyrena Austin. “Now it’s bigger, and, we think, better. The kids just wanted a place to go.”
She said some campers have attended almost every year of the camp since they became eligible, meaning the age range of campers today ranges from teen to near 60.
Campers must have physicals before attending, and must have permission from a parent or guardian.
There’s a $50 registration fee — $10 upfront, the remaining $40 on arrival at camp.
The upfront fee “is to ensure that campers show up after they sign up,” Ratliff said. “For families that even that fee would be a hardship for, we have churches and other organizations that help to sponsor some of our campers.”
The registration fees, totaling about $5,500, offset but a fraction of the camp cost, which runs about $33,000. Renting facilities at Percy Quin for a week takes about $20,000, Ratliff said.
In addition to JA’s only fundraiser of the year, the Azalea Ball, other organizations pitch in to help with the camp and provide services like donated or discounted meals.
Golden Corral, where the lions Club meets each Tuesday, provides a meal each year, Austin said, as does Southwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center.
“One of the campers’ favorite (meals) every year is going to the hospital and up to the sixth floor,” Austin said. “It’s like Disney World to them.”
Due to the size of the camp, some campers and counselors are housed across Lake Tangipahoa from the main group. Austin said JA has discussed trying to hold a second week of camp, but aside from the cost, a second week “would never be the same Camp Sunshine.”