Joel, Suntown’s Ball of Sunshine

A piece written on May 3, 2011 by Millie Kilayko
President, Suntown Camp Foundation Inc.

Joel was Suntown Camp’s little ball of sunshine. From the first camp in 2007 to the fourth in 2010,Joel never failed to capture the hearts of the Suntown volunteers.

With eyes so rich in expression and a smart, intelligent mind that provided him the facility to match the right words for his thoughts…Joel easily hit it on, both with adults and kids. Of course it helped that this seven year old little boy (at the first Camp) had a face so cute that I oftentimes had to restrain myself from giving him just a bit more attention than I gave the others in an effort to be fair.

Joel was a candid little boy, and at the time of the first camp, his body was closer to plump. It surprised many that he would answer, when asked, what form of cancer he had, that he would say that he had ———-(a medical term that Joel would state which I can’t remember just now) which meant that he had leukemia and that his cancer had progressed to his testicles.

In one of the sessions during the first camp, the kids were asked to identify their most ardent wishes. Joel was first to express his. His little voice burst in the center of the room …..LECHON!

And so some volunteers got to work to seek a donation for one, and when the kids went to a picnic on the second day of the camp, Joel was made to close his eyes as he entered the room where lunch was to be served….and allowed to open them when the lechon was placed in front of him.

The expression of wonder, amazement, and gratitude on Joel’s face at that moment etched in my heart the commitment to continue organizing Suntown Camp activities even though all me and my friends intended to do was at first just to only organize what would have been just the first and the last one.

Even as Joel continued to be the ball of sunshine in every camp that followed, even as he bravely tried to smile through the activities and continue to join his old and new friends at camp, his gait gradually began to slow, his face began to show traces of masked pain.

And even as Suntown volunteers made sure there would be lechon in almost every special camp activity, Joel’s appetite began to wane.

In March this year, Joel started on and off confinements in the hospital. But on April 1, his dream of joining his classmates for their Grade School graduation was fulfilled as, thankfully, he was out of the hospital on Graduation Day.

As it happened every year, Joel was called on stage to receive his medals, being a star student. This time, his teacher had to place a chair on stage as he was too weak to stand to receive them.

Last Sunday, I went to Joel’s house and saw his graduation photo. I could no longer congratulate him because he was lifeless in a coffin.

Thus, when I invite friends to volunteer for Suntown Camp, many would refuse saying that they cannot stand the thought of having a child die on you after having given a piece of your heart to the kid.

On the contrary, though, a child does not die in Suntown. Be it for four years as it was with Joel, or for just a month as it has happened with one of the kids, a child does not die on you in Suntown. A child, in fact, begins to live. I confess that’s Joel’s passing was among the most painful for me among the many many passages I have encountered in Suntown Camp. But I am happy. I smile through my tears.

Because I know that through Suntown Camp, Joel Berden’s short life lived fuller for four years. And he continues to be a ball of sunshine in my heart.