By Joyce DeWallace, Contributing Writer
Northborough – Brrrrrrrr! It takes a mighty big reason for two people to willingly jump into a pool of frigid water when the temperature is only 18 degrees. For Ken Nichols and Connor Meoli, both of Northborough, the annual fundraiser for Camp Sunshine was reason enough. They braved the icy waters at the Polar Plunge held recently at Mt. Wachusett in order to encourage donations for children with life-threatening illnesses. Together, they raised over $1,800.
Nichols met Meoli through the Young Neighbors in Action (YNIA) church group at St. Rose of Lima Parish in Northborough. YNIA is a nationwide teen group that is committed to improving the lives of others. Nichols and his wife, Sue, have been involved with the program for several years. Meoli is a junior at Algonquin Regional High School and has been a member of YNIA since his freshman year.
“My volunteer work with YNIA has made me more grateful for the house I live in, my family and friends, and the people who care about me,” Meoli said.
The national program helps young people learn about volunteerism and how to make changes in their community. The freshmen in the Northborough group start off with a week of community service in Worcester for the Friendly House Summer Camp program; they act as camp counselors for underprivileged children aged 6 to 12. Meoli explained that every day they went to a different state park and helped with games, arts and crafts, and swim lessons.
“Kids are kids,” he said. “No matter what their background, they just want to have fun.”
The teens get to see firsthand how poverty, hunger and other social issues affect people and how they as volunteers can help create positive changes.
During his second year in the program, Meoli traveled to New Rochelle,N.Y., to spend a week in July working at a Habitat for Humanity project. The group slept on cots in a room above a church and cooked their own meals. During the day they worked on rehabbing a foreclosed house that had been vacant for several years. The teens put up siding and painted, learning some valuable lifelong skills along the way. The home eventually provided housing for a family that needed help.
This summer, Meoli will go to Camp Sunshine in Casco, Maine. His mom, Pam Meoli, volunteered last year, along with the Nicholses, Julie Doyle and John Healey to take 11 teens to be counselors at the camp on Sebago Lake.
“The unique thing aboutCampSunshineis that both the kids and their families are invited at no charge,” Ken Nichols said. “They come from all over the country. All the kids during our week in July were struggling with cancer.”
Camp Sunshine provides respite, support, joy and hope to children with life-threatening illnesses and their immediate families through various stages of a child's illness. The year-round program is free of charge to all families, and includes 24-hour onsite medical and psychosocial support. Besides the usual camp activities, there was a day of bass fishing and kayaking lessons.
“For me, I saw how strong the families have to be and are,” Ken said. “That environment helped them get themselves together and get ready for the rest of the year and their struggles. It helped a very tough situation. I have a real respect for all these families are going through. I vowed that I would do what I could do to help them continue their mission.”
By taking the plunge at Mt. Wachusett, along with 10 other central Massachusetts teams, the Nicholses and Meoli helped Camp Sunshine raise $35,253.38 – enough to send 15 families from Massachusetts to Maine next summer. That's when Meoli, his mother and the Nicholses will be volunteers helping families deal with the turmoil of difficult medical problems.