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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, April 18, 2006

A dream trip for Sunshine Kids

By Loren Moreno
Advertiser Staff Writer

Melody Alcantara, 13, left, and Rachel Tuten, 15, both from Tampa, Fla., try their hand at steering a catamaran on a cruise off Waikiki. The vacation, given by the nonprofit Sunshine Kids, gives the girls and 26 other cancer patients a chance to bond and take a break.

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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The catamaran Kepoikai II takes some of the Sunshine Kids for a ride off Waikiki. Later this week, they'll visit Pearl Harbor, Sea Life Park, Kualoa Ranch and Hawaiian Waters Adventure Park.

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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For more information about Sunshine Kids, visit www.sunshinekids.org

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Thirteen-year-old Melody Alcantara spotted a sea turtle during a catamaran cruise off Waikiki yesterday, and it was all she and the other children from cancer hospitals across the country could talk about.

"It's nice to forget about the medication the treatment for a while," said Melody, an eighth-grader from Tampa, Fla.

Melody is among 28 kids ages 11 to 17 living with cancer who are taking a break from hospital treatments this week to enjoy a dream vacation in Hawai'i. The teens are with the group Sunshine Kids, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to providing free group activities to children with cancer.

Yesterday the kids were treated to lunch at Duke's Waikiki and were scheduled to attend a lu'au last night at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.

Besides enjoying Hawai'i, Melody, who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in early January, said she hopes to connect with other kids from around the country who have similar stories.

"They understand what you're going through. That helps," she said.

There are seven groups of four teenagers from Denver; Hartford, Conn.; Houston; Omaha, Neb.; Philadelphia; Phoenix; and Tampa, Fla. Each group is accompanied by a member of the medical staff from the hospital in their respective city.

Each child was picked by the medical staff from each hospital to go on this week's vacation at no cost to the hospital or the child.

This isn't the first time Sunshine Kids has held one of its 11 national events in Honolulu. In 2003, another group of kids came for a similar vacation, said organization founder Rhoda Tomasco, originally from Texas and now a Honolulu resident.

"The aloha spirit is so strong and people are so generous to us. It really lifts the spirit of the kids," she said.

Groups of kids from Tripler Army Medical Center and Kapi'olani Medical Center for Women and Children have participated in Sunshine Kids events in the past, she said.

Tomasco said her organization plans to make the "Hawaiian Hang-Loose Holiday" an annual event.

Sunshine Kids was founded in 1982 when Tomasco was working as a volunteer in the pediatric oncology department at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

"It's an opportunity to get (the kids) out of the hospital and meet other children that they can talk with about what is going on in their lives," said Tomasco. "A lot of times their friends at school have no idea what they are going through," she said.

That's what Jessie McCabe, 17, is hoping for. She makes monthly visits to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center but wants this vacation to be a chance to leave that all behind.

"This is really exciting. I wouldn't have been able to afford this trip on my own," she said.

Jessie is missing an important statewide exam at school this week, but she isn't worried.

"I'd much rather be in Hawai'i," she said.

In addition to meeting a local surfer boy, Jessie said she hopes to meet some new friends on this trip. She's already caught up with 14-year-old Emily Garcia, who receives treatment at the same hospital.

Emily said she feels more relaxed and comfortable being around kids who are in similar situations.

She normally wears a hairpiece when she's out in public, but not on this trip. She noticed other kids were comfortable not wearing hats or hairpieces and it made her feel secure enough to leave hers in her hotel room, she said.

"And it's hot here," she said.

Emily said she couldn't wait to come to Hawai'i when she found out about the trip.

"I had my bags packed from the day I found out," she said.

Jessie and Emily also spent yesterday morning with two other kids from Texas David Kirkland and Sean Harrison, both 16. All four have a form of cancer called osteosarcoma, which attacks the lungs and bones.

Sean said he hopes the vacation will be a change of pace from his visit to the hospital once every three weeks.

"Hopefully we'll get to go snorkeling or something," said Sean.

In addition to seven nurses, more than 60 volunteers from Prudential Locations in Honolulu are also helping chaperone the children on their visit. And local businesses such as Duke's, ABC Stores and Waikiki Trader Group have donated gift certificates, meals and gift bags to the children.

"We hope to give them an opportunity, even if just for a moment, to forget about the everyday stresses and just be kids again," Tomasco said.

Fifteen-year-old Rachel Tuten spent her day yesterday with her friend, Melody, whom she met while in the hospital in Florida. Rachel called this trip a "dream."

"I didn't expect to get picked and I definitely didn't expect to do all the things we're going to get to do," she said.

Later this week, the kids are scheduled to make trips to Pearl Harbor, Sea Life Park, Kualoa Ranch and Hawaiian Waters Adventure Park.

Rachel goes for cancer treatment at St. Joseph's Children's Hospital in Tampa, for a week at a time. She said she is happy to get away from that for a little while.

"I'm ready to have a great time. And I love to stay in hotel rooms," she said.

Reach Loren Moreno at lmoreno@honoluluadvertiser.com.