RUTLEDGE — The 16 visitors that made the trip of more than 30 miles from Athens heard these words not long after arriving at Camp Twin Lakes on Wednesday afternoon.
“There’s some kids here that really can’t wait to meet you,” Mo Thrash told members of the Georgia football team, wearing red jerseys and shorts on this first day of summer.
Kids like Joseph Liguori, a 14-year-old from Acworth. He’s among 250 campers spending this week in Rutledge — summer home of Camp Sunshine, run by an organization based in Decatur that serves children with cancer.
Liguori, heading into the 10th grade, said he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma last Aug. 26, but has been in remission since May 22. He takes antibiotics so he doesn’t get infected.
“I’ve always dreamed since I was 5 of being a Georgia player,” he said before knocking down a pass from offensive tackle Kenarious Gates in a touch football game. “Meeting them was like a big deal for me.”
Georgia players didn’t seem to be giving lip service to what spending a couple of hours at the camp meant to them. Bulldogs players have been coming here since back when Vince Dooley and Ray Goff were coaching, and have continued to go every year under coach Mark Richt.
“It’s humbling to come here and see kids who have to fight for their lives every day,” linebacker Brandon Burrows said. “Sometimes we don’t think about it when we’re working out. We complain about a long run here or an ache there. It’s like we really haven’t dealt with anything.”
Liguori followed the Georgia players around as Thrash, chairman of the board of Camp Sunshine, gave them a tour. Players stopped along the way several times to pose for pictures and sign some autographs.
Thrash also took the players inside an infirmary, where they met Jessica, an 18-year old from Fayette County who has a rare form of cancer.
“She’s been through a lot,” linebacker Amarlo Herrera said. “It’s more than what we’ve ever been through.”
The players clapped for Jessica and took pictures with her.
“She still had a big smile on her face and was able to confidently talk about her condition,” Burrows said.
Dorothy Jordan, who founded the camp 30 years ago, said Camp Sunshine “is all about a celebration of life.”
On this day there was laughter, and teenagers being teenagers. As Georgia’s players walked by a game of pool volleyball, the special guests heard some razzing.
“LSU! LSU!” “Roll Tide!” And a moment later, “War Eagle!”
“Oooh,” some players said.
The campers, some in wheelchairs, include those newly diagnosed, those cured, those undergoing chemotherapy, and those about to undergo a bone marrow transplant. Doctors are on-site 24 hours a day, and eight oncology nurses work the camp.
“We give chemo, we do blood counts,” Jordan said. “We do whatever it takes to keep the kids here so they can enjoy the summer camp experience. We minimize the impact of anything we need to do medically. Kids get chemo at night and other times of the day that don’t interfere with activities.”
Those activities include archery, arts and crafts, horseback riding, tennis, mini-golf, putting out a newspaper and running a camp radio station.
“There’s a lot of fun things to do here,” Liguori said.
“They see other children that are experiencing what they’re going through,” Thrash said. “They say `Man, if they can conquer it, I can conquer it.’”
The camp staff is mostly volunteers. Thirty percent of the counselors are former campers.
On Thursday, camper Brandon McGee from Dawsonville, who turns 18 this week, returned a punt for a touchdown against some of the Bulldogs.
“I got a touchdown!” he announced afterward, his hands in the air.
Another group of campers — 7 to 12 years old this time — will arrive Sunday. Another group of Georgia players are scheduled to visit again Wednesday.
“A lot of these kids, they inspire me to work harder because of what they go through,” Gates said. “I’m glad I came. This is my first time and I plan to come again next year.”