No matter the overhead, there is Blue Skies in Port St. Joe.
Since 2010, Blue Skies Ministries has treated pediatric cancer patients along with their families and siblings to a weeklong trip to Port St. Joe.
In 2014 the organization, based out of Marietta, G.A., planned eight trips to Gulf County, each time staying in WindMark Beach homes and condos.
Founder of Blue Skies Melinda Mayton said that families faced with childhood cancer are often stretched emotionally, financially, physically and spiritually, oftentimes to the breaking point.
A nurse practioner of more than 13 years, Mayton switched her college major from business to nursing after her sister fell ill.
After becoming a nurse she worked with pediatric cancer patients and watched what the families went through and became determined to do something to help. Mere years later, the organization was making its first pilgrimage to Port St. Joe.
“I can’t change places with the families, but for one week, I can walk beside them,” said Mayton.
With the exception of travel costs to and from WindMark Beach, there is no cost to the families who attend the retreats. Activities are pre-planned and a large group of volunteers handle the cooking, cleaning and laundry so families can focus on relaxing.
While days are filled with activities like snorkeling, horseback riding, and plenty of time on the beach, each night has a different theme.
During “Hollywood Night,” families arrive in WindMark by limo and walk a red carpet where their photos are taken and they’re interviewed by volunteers.
On “Red, White and Blue Skies” kids deck their bicycles in patriotic streamers and participate in a parade around WindMark’s common area. The parade is led by members of the Gulf County Sheriff’s Department and Port St. Joe Volunteer Fire Department.
The evening is closed out by families releasing lanterns to signify them “lifting their cares above the clouds.”
When dealing with pediatric cancer, oftentimes that affected child must take center stage.
Mayton and her crew of 40 adult volunteers go out of their way to ensure that the parents and siblings of the child receive as much attention as possible during the trip.
Parents attend nightly discussions where they can speak openly about their experiences dealing with their child’s condition, good or bad.
Last week Jud and Jessica Greene of Birmingham, A.L. attended their second Blue Skies retreat with their 5-year-old son Wyatt, who is currently battling brain cancer.
“Wyatt hasn’t had an opportunity to be a kid and the best thing here is to see the smile on his face,” said Jud. “It allows him to engage with other kids…kids who understand what he’s going through, and that’s tough to come by.”
The couple heard about the program through a friend at the hospital where Wyatt was being treated and welcomed the opportunity for some relaxation and socializing.
“It’s such a great week,” said Jud. “You get to rest and take a break from the craziness.”
Mike Beasley of Marietta, father to 4-year-old son with cancer, echoed the sentiment.
“Sometimes cancer is the least of the concerns for the families,” said Beasley. “The retreats give families a chance to relax, exhale, and take a break from the doctor’s appointments, stress and bills.
“It’s like a cruise that never leaves the shore.”
Mayton said that once children are pulled out of school to receive treatment, it’s not uncommon for them to lose friends as their lives continue on.
Justin Mack, an 11-year-old cancer patient from Marietta, enjoyed his second retreat last week and said that his favorite part was being with everyone and having a lot of fun.
Mack said he’d made many friends at his retreats and looks forward to seeing many of the other kids.
“It’s on the beach and it’s a nice treat,” said Mack. “I like being around so many really nice people.”
Volunteers, coming to Port St. Joe from Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, and South Carolina, spend the retreat caring for the families and not only give their time, but also raise financial support to help cover costs for the guest, whether it’s through fundraisers or their own donations.
Volunteers serve the families to free them from the burdens of daily tasks, creating a safe and welcoming environment. Many volunteers often bring their children, who develop friendships with patients and often return each year.
“It’s unbelievable to be around families that promote volunteerism,” said Kim Epps, a first-year from Kennesaw, G.A. “It’s all about the kids who just want to feel normal this week.”
Sissy Persichetti, a second-year volunteer, said that for many kids, attending the retreat is “non-negotiable” and compared the event to summer camp.
“Most people who come, come back and until you’ve experienced it, it’s hard to articulate the feeling it gives you,” said Persichetti. “Our friends got us down here, but the kids got us back.”
The overall cost per trip is $50,000 for lodging alone; to help keep the trips going Mayton regularly receives donations from hospitals, churches and families who have been helped by the organization.
The retreat is in full effect this week as well, and others arrive in September and October. Those who may be interested in volunteering can apply online at www.blueskiesministries.org.
“While we can’t change the children’s future, we can make sure they have a place to laugh, eat, play, hang out and enjoy creation,” said Mayton.