Jacob Bonwell, Nick Leonard and Brandon Bunch are three friends who are unwilling to see a good thing come to an end. Six years ago, Camp Good Times, a summer camp for children with cancer, lost funding and had to close. The American Cancer Society had reallocated its money from children’s camps to cancer research, so there was no funding for Camp Good Times. Bonwell, Leonard and Bunch, however, could not accept this fate for the camp. As a boy, Bunch suffered with cancer. He attended this type of camp for several years and knew the life-changing affect it can offer young people battling cancer. He credits the summer camps he attended with having a lifelong positive impact on him. Because of these experiences, he felt a passion for providing this opportunity to others with similar struggles.
The idea for funding an entire summer camp for kids with cancer began as just a dream for Bonwell, Leonard and Bunch. But as these three friends sat in Bonwell’s living room brainstorming, the idea of the Sweethearts’ Ball was born. It would be an annual gala event to raise funds for a pediatric oncology camp in Post Falls, newly named Camp Journey. This camp would provide summertime, childhood opportunities and experiences for children fighting cancer. With the appreciative support of Camp Director Kari Allen, Bonwell and his friends went to work organizing the Sweethearts’ Ball to raise money for Camp Journey.
The first Sweethearts’ Ball fundraiser event was held in 2012 and raised more than $36,000 for Camp Journey. With this success, the Sweethearts’ Ball became the main fundraising vehicle for the summer camp, keeping this opportunity alive for kids. Allen dubbed Bonwell, Leonard and Bunch her “Angel Boys” for saving the camp.
The Sweethearts’ Ball is now in its sixth year and continues to raise funds solely for Camp Journey. Bonwell and his fellow founders say their goal is to raise $100K. This would cover nearly all costs of the camp. They have additional sponsors to help fund the camp but have grown incrementally closer to this target amount every year. Running the week-long camp is a huge expense because campers attend free of charge. Camp Journey costs $1,200 for each child and, although there are some outside grants and sponsors, the Sweethearts’ Ball currently provides most of the funding required for all 120 campers. They feel it’s crucial to keep the Camp Journey opportunity free for these children. The financial, emotional and physical burden of battling cancer is heavy enough! These “Angel Boy” founders of the Sweethearts’ Ball want summer camp to be financially carefree and a meaningful highlight of the year for these kids and their families.
Both Bonwell and Sweethearts’ Ball co-founder, Leonard, volunteer as counselors at Camp Journey. They’re able to experience first-hand the value the funds they raise provide to these kids. Bonwell explains, “You get to see how these kids live their daily lives and the struggles they have. It makes you become more humble to know what you’ve been given and how you get to live. You see these kids smile, even though they have stage 4 cancer or are undergoing chemotherapy treatments. They’re laughing and smiling. They forget about their issues and are just full of joy to spend a week with their friends.” Camp Journey fosters this sense of friendship and community. Campers and counselors build relationships that continue and develop from year to year. “The kids know you and remember you. They come up and want to hug you. It is so rewarding to see the fruit of your labors. It’s motivating to keep going when you see how it benefits the kids,” says Bonwell. As counselors, they have camp nicknames: Bonwell, a chemical engineer by profession, is Science Guy, and Leonard is Smiles for his ever-present grin at camp.
Camp Journey is a week full of games, crafts, swimming and more. All activities at camp are designed to encourage campers to try new things and grow in their confidence. Camp Journey is a chance for kids who suffer from cancer to be able to forget their challenges and just be a kid for a week. This is a rare gift for them. Growth through leadership opportunities are also provided for campers who are 16 to 17 years old. These kids are considered Leaders in Training. They have leadership responsibilities during camp week and, one year after they age out of attending camp, they are eligible to return as camp counselors.
Although the Sweethearts’ Ball provides the majority of the funding for camp, Bonwell readily acknowledges that “many people from the community come together to make this a special week for these kids.” A full staff of oncology medical professionals is onsite during camp week to provide medical care for campers, and Ross Point, in Post Falls, donates its camp and lifeguards.
This year, the Sweethearts’ Ball will be held April 7 at the Coeur d’Alene Resort. It will be an exciting night of dinner and dancing, live and silent auctions, raffle prizes and speakers. The Sweethearts’ Ball is an opportunity to come together as a community to make a difference in the lives of cancer survivors. Visit their website, SweetheartsBall.com, to purchase tickets and learn how to volunteer.