Twins Who Beat Cancer, Lost Dad to COVID Now Help Kids at 'Life-Changing' Summer Camp
Maddy and Jack Lewinger are preparing to be counselors at Sunrise Day Camp in Long Island, New York, where they've formed unbreakable bonds with kids impacted by cancer
At 15 years old, Maddy and Jack Lewinger have experienced more hardships than most people their age — but they haven't let it stop them from wanting to make a difference.
When the twin siblings were just 2½, they were diagnosed with Wilms Tumor, a form of childhood kidney cancer. Maddy fought the disease for three years, from April 2008 to February 2011, while Jack's battle lasted from August 2008 until January 2009.
Around the time they were 5, the twins began attending Sunrise Day Camp-Long Island, a free summer day camp for children with cancer and their siblings.
Over the last 10 years, Sunrise has been a constant source of joy for the Lewingers, while also providing support during their toughest times, including last year after their father Joe died from COVID-19.
So it's no surprise the twins are now planning to give back to Sunrise by becoming counselors, with hopes of making an impact on other kids, just as their counselors have done for them.
"I always felt like Sunrise was just one big family and think of my counselors as big brothers and big sisters," Maddy tells PEOPLE. "I really do look up to all of them, and I would love to be that for someone."
Adds Jack: "Every single one of the counselors I've ever had were role models. And now it's our turn to serve after over a decade of doing this. I can't wait to tell my story."
Long before Maddy and Jack were thinking about Sunrise Day Camp, the two were fighting their own cancer battles.
The twins' mom, Maura Lewinger, tells PEOPLE that Maddy was diagnosed first with a Stage IV tumor on her kidney that metastasized to her lungs, forcing the then-toddler to quickly start treatment.
Though Jack had no symptoms at the time, Maura says she and Joe decided to get him tested anyway to "put our minds at ease."
"I said, "Okay, Maddy is handling treatment well. Let's just get Jack tested,'" she recalls, noting how doctors told her the chances of Jack also having cancer was very rare. "We were going to go to the hospital, get him tested and then go out to lunch, and that's not what happened."
"I still can picture myself sitting on the exam table, holding my knees, rocking, and feeling like I was floating above all the information [and what] was happening because it was too much to handle," adds Maura.
Jack's case ended up being less severe, with no signs of cancer after just five months of treatment. However, Maddy's case lasted several years with several relapses.
During Maddy's hospital stays, she became involved with Sunrise on Wheels, the camp's program to bring activities to kids while they're undergoing treatment in pediatric oncology units at participating hospitals.
Through Sunrise on Wheels, Maddy and her family were eventually introduced to their summer camp. It's designed to bring back the joys of childhood to those battling the disease or personally impacted it, all free of charge. To that end, admission is open to children who have cancer, kids who were diagnosed with cancer within the last five years, and their siblings.
The camp — which has five physical sites along the East Coast and three in Israel — has extensively trained counselors, specialists and medical personnel onsite to meet the needs of the kids, and their staff-to-camper ratio often exceeds 1:4, per their brochure.
Though Maddy was initially too sick to attend the camp, Jack went the first summer. She finally joined him the summer before kindergarten.
"All I remember is everyone being really welcoming," Maddy says. "They make sure that the kids have the best day... I just always remember having the time of my life."
"I remember the very first time they fully set up the playground," Jack recalls. "They let me test it out. I got to run around and try everything on it, which was amazing."
Over the years, the camp has continued to provide the twins with lasting memories, as well as close friendships with their peers and counselors. (Their younger sister, Maeve, also now attends.)
"It is amazing," Jack notes, adding that after attending camp for 10 years straight, "You don't realize how quick everything's gone by until you actually think about for a second."
"It felt good to be able to relate to others and help them feel welcome, being like, 'Hey, I went through this too,'" Maddy says. "It's life-changing. The older counselors tell you it's going to be this whole new light in your life, and they turn out to be right."
But what nobody could have expected was that Sunrise would have to shift to virtual summer camp sessions last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The change in plans was an even bigger blow to the Lewinger twins, who had lost their father to COVID just months earlier.
"Devastation is not even the word to describe the loss they felt," Maura says of heartbreak they endured.
She tried to prepare her kids for losing their cherished days at the camp, "but it was still such a disappointment."
Even though they couldn't all be together due to COVID restrictions, the twins found comfort in support from their counselors and friends.
"Every single one of our camp friends and counselors, they made a video for us saying how much they love us and they're here for the support," Jack says. "The camp Zooms really did distract you from what's going on in the world."
"When my dad passed away, it felt like everybody [at school] knew my business... So I took a week and a half off and then I had another week and a half off for spring break," says Maddy. "I spent every hour of those three weeks on FaceTime with one of my counselors who I really look up to."
"I was actually on the phone with her the entire day leading up to my dad passing away," she continues.
Adds Maura: "I don't think they really realize the full impact that Sunrise has had on their life because they never didn't have it. It, one hundred percent, helped them cope and have some sense of normalcy in their life."
After a challenging year, the twins are thrilled to finally return to in-person camp again this summer.
"To be in this position now, it feels like there's a lot of responsibility, but at the same time, we're going to have a lot of fun with it," says Jack.
And while they're excited to officially apply to be counselors next year, Maddy admits it's bittersweet leaving her camper role.
"I know I'll be ready, but just I've been a camper for so long," she says. "I'm definitely excited too because I'm very energetic, so I'll have something to do with my energy."
As for Maura, she's forever grateful to Sunrise.
"As much as pediatric cancer is one of the worst things that can happen to you as a parent, having Sunrise Day Camp was a gift in our own backyard," she says. "We're so thankful to have this respite for ourselves and normalcy for our children, and they're not closing their doors until there's a cure."
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