RUTLEDGE — Camp Sunshine grew appreciably brighter as the yellow helicopter touched down and “Karl’s little brother” emerged wearing his trademark visor.
“That’s what the people know me as here,” Georgia football coach Kirby Smart said, “Karl’s little brother.”
Karl Smart, 18 months Kirby’s senior at 45 years old, is a bit of a celebrity in his own right on the Twin Lakes Campus, where Camp Sunshine hosts hundreds of young cancer patients and survivors annually.
The Smart brothers and dozens of players from the Georgia football team were at the camp on Tuesday, spending time with campers in the crafts center and facility gym.
Karl attended Camp Sunshine himself after being diagnosed with cancer (leukemia) his freshman year of high school, returning as an adult on several occasions to lend his support as a counselor and nurse practitioner.
“He battled cancer to the end and he kicked its butt,” Kirby said proudly of his brother. “He’s an inspiration to so many of these kids, and he’s used his lifelong career to give back.”
Kirby Smart has become part of Camp Sunshine himself, having made several trips and contributions to the camp going back to his days as a relatively anonymous assistant at Valdosta State.
“There’s a lot that goes on within a family that’s dealing with cancer, and this place is a refuge, a place to go where you can forget about what your’e dealing with for a little bit of time,” Smart explained.
“All you want to do is help your sibling, and a lot of times that’s not just words, that’s being there, and I appreciate these players coming out.”
The Georgia players that volunteered their time off on Tuesday to interact made the day better for campers like 13-year-old Dylan Malbrough.
Malbrough said he had flashbacks when a so-called “Kirby Copter” landed at Camp Sunshine, fleeting as they were, it was a reminder of his introduction to cancer.
“When Kirby’s helicopter came down it reminded me of all of it, when I was in my helicopter and they took me to Egleston Hospital,” said Dylan, who battled leukemia through the age of 6.
“It started at Barrow Hospital, I had been getting bruises all over my body, so they ran tests and they said everything is good, we just need to run one more test,” he said. “Then they came back and said, “Dylan is diagnosed with leukemia cancer.’
“I remember them putting me in the helicopter, and I remember waking up when it was landing.”
Cancer patients, survivors and families all have their memories and testimonies, the Smart brothers included.
“We spent two Christmases at Egleston Hospital, and Karl went through some really tough times,” Kirby Smart said. “We stayed at the Ronald McDonald House right outside of Egleston, spent several nights there.”
Karl’s struggle led him to give up football after his sophomore year, too skinny and weak at the time to compete anywhere close to the level of his little brother, a future All-SEC safety at Georgia.
“My mom would wake me up at 2 in the morning, and we would drive to Atlanta to be the first ones in line at Egleston and get treatment,” Karl Smart said, recalling the four-hour drive from his hometown of Bainbridge.
“My brother (Kirby) would go stay with someone else …. he was probably just as scared as anybody,” he said. “Cancer affects the whole family and affects communities, and I recognize how much my family had to sacrifice for me.”
Riley Baron has been coming to Camp Sunshine for four years, so he knew what to expect when the Georgia football players unloaded off buses on Tuesday.
“It’s a connection when the players come, another bright side for the other kids,” said Riley, a 13-year-old who has battled through chemotherapy in his quest to overcome leukemia. “It’s great, and it’s amazing, and they are here to help the other kids, especially the ones still going through treatment.”
Riley’s story goes back to when he was 6 years old, smaller and weaker than his classmates — some who bullied him — and dealing with problems at home.
“I remember the night my mom picked me up to put me to bed, and I screamed in pain,” Riley said. “I had to go to chemotherapy, which was terrible. There’s side effects, like the hair loss, and you get a distaste for some foods.
“I can’t eat sandwiches at all. I throw up if I do, so that’s pretty bad.”
But other than that, Riley will tell you he considers himself to be doing pretty well, especially after his hometown hero took time to get his picture taken with him.
“Jake Fromm is the player I connect to, because I go to Mossy Creek, and he went to the same middle school,” Riley said. “If I didn’t get my picture taken with him, my friends at school would kill me for passing up an opportunity like that.
“Jake seemed pretty happy about getting his picture taken, too, it seemed that way.”
Riley said the Georgia players make more of an impact at Camp Sunshine than they probably realize.
“I have seen the other kids get a lift, and I have seen some drastic changes,” Riley said. “I had a friend going though treatment who had depression, but he started to get over it after the players came last year. He really enjoyed seeing them, and he loved getting the autographs.
“I haven’t seen him at the camp this year, though. I don’t know where he is.”
Karl Smart remembers Camp Sunshine in his youth as a place where he “could feel normal” while battling cancer throughout high school.
“There’s a lot of memories, mostly good,” Karl Smart said. “But there are also some memories of losing friends.”
As many advances as there have been in the medical industry, not every camper makes it back the following year.
The Camp Sunshine counselors, volunteers and workers make it a point to make the most of their time with the young campers, bringing as much encouragement and happiness into their lives as possible.
— Mike Griffith (@MikeGriffith32) June 18, 2019
“The best part is just being at camp and getting to experience all they have to offer here,” Dylan Malbrough said. “Some kids don’t get to do these things at their house. So you come here and have more fun than you ever could anywhere else.”
Kirby Smart is determined to keep those good times coming, providing significant financial support. The Smart family once had to rely on donations and community good will themselves.
“Being a high school coach’s son, and my mom is an educator, we didn’t have a lot of money,” Kirby Smart recalled, “so every benefit we could get that we were afforded, through insurance, donations, whether that was through Ronald McDonald House or the community of Bainbridge taking care of my sister and myself while my parents were gone, we used.”
Karl Smart just shakes his head.
“I couldn’t have made it through without my family, everyone had to sacrifice,” Karl Smart said. “This today was a mutual experience.
“I think for the players seeing kids who aren’t as able-bodied, or who are struggling, many of the players are touched by the experience,” Karl Smart said. “For the kids, it means a lot to meet the guys they’ve seen on TV.”
Kirby Smart says the Georgia football players will keep coming every year.
“It’s always a special occasion to be here for me, and having my brother here today makes it even better,” Kirby Smart said. “It’s a voluntary deal for our players, and they enjoy coming.
“These kids here come from their hometowns across the state of Georgia, and they get to interact with them and see how it is from a tough side. You see you can’t take anything for granted.”
Editorial note: At the request of readers, here is a link to the Camp Sunshine website for those interested in obtaining more information or making donations: Camp Sunshine
Karl Smart at Camp Sunshine
Kirby Smart at Camp Sunshine