Lanier Islands Resort was full of smiling faces, fun activities and even a couple of princesses on Saturday, Aug. 25, when cancer patients and their families from across the South checked in to the hotel for a short getaway.
Thea Gunn of Covington, who is currently battling colon cancer, said she was looking forward to lots of laughs, love and food with her family over the weekend.
“It means a lot to me,” she said of the trip. “I’ve been going through a lot of stuff lately, so this gives me a lot of hope. It’s just a nice feeling to have some people looking out like this.”
The retreat is hosted by Thumbs Up Mission, which was founded after 18-year-old Keaton Coker, a Flowery Branch High student, died of brain cancer in 2014.
“One of the things that meant the most to (the Cokers) was going on a Make-A-Wish trip,” said Marybeth Cook, co-founder of Thumbs Up. “What they loved about that is they considered it not just a vacation, but a vacation from cancer.”
The Cokers developed Thumbs Up to give other people dealing with cancer that same experience but decided to reach out to others besides just children. Cook said the retreat is offered to any family battling cancer as long as they have at least one school-aged child.
“Outside that one parenthetical, it does not matter to us which member of that family has the cancer,” she said, adding that similar events are held in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. “Our goal is just to keep growing and growing and growing and expanding into other states.”
The foundation’s 11th retreat began Saturday afternoon and drew in more than 90 families from not only Georgia but also Indiana, Ohio, South Carolina and others.
And in addition to the guests, about 150 volunteers were also at the check-in.
“For us, it’s just an opportunity to help support people that are going through tough times,” said Larry Dudas as he and his wife Katie helped in the playroom for kids. “It’s just a small thing we can do to try to help brighten somebody else’s day.”
The event also drew in several volunteers who had previously been guests themselves. Lynn Weber, of Gainesville, a survivor of ovarian cancer, attended the first Thumbs Up Retreat in 2015 with her family and has been a volunteer ever since.
“Before we even left our first retreat, my husband had already volunteered us to come back,” she said. “I ended up volunteering and then literally never missed a retreat. It’s special because it’s different. For me, it’s like a breath of fresh of air.”
The day’s activities included time at the waterpark, a spa room for adults, a playroom for the children and a luau in the evening.
“What we try and do is inject quality into everything we do,” said Dick Baxter, family relations director for Thumbs Up.
He said the retreat will also include a riverboat cruise, a Western-themed night, dinner from caterers like the Varsity and some free time for the families before the event ends Monday afternoon.
“One of the things we found that people who come on our retreats love is they get to spend time with other families just like them who are on a journey just like theirs but it’s not in a hospital setting,” said Cook. “We give them an opportunity to come and just be a family and run and jump and play and laugh and do that with other people who are on a similar journey.”