The beautiful beaches here on the Gulf Coast attract visitors all year long, most of the time for vacation. But this week, families are coming with hope for a week of bonding and healing. 13 families from around the country are in Panama City Beach enjoying a week of fun in the sun at the Lighthouse Family Retreat, all of the families here have one thing in common.
"It actually gave us a dose of normal, all of these people around us helped us forget about cancer for a week", said Cliff Atfield, a volunteer at the retreat. Cancer, that's the key word. Each family at the retreat has a child going through cancer. "This is our son Andrew who likes to sing."
Andrew is the youngest of 13 kids trading treatment for the beach this week. "Around this time last year, Andrew was diagnosed with stage four neuroblastoma. Surprisingly he stopped walking or crawling", said Jon and Jena Hall, Andrew's parents.
Andrew only started walking again about two months ago and now his family says he can't sit still. 85 kids total are enjoying the salt life this week; the kid patients, their siblings and the volunteers kids.
14 year old Trey Atfield describes the retreat, "it's basically normalcy". Atfield is now a volunteer at the retreat. But almost six years ago, he himself was a patient kid. "I can actually connect on a personal and mental level with some of the kids because I went through what they are going through now", said Trey Atfield, who fought and beat Leukemia and now comes back to the retreat every year, where he and his sister volunteer with the new kid patients.
Kirsten Atfield said, "I know sometimes you get caught and become an adult and it's like watching them become teenagers again and get to honestly relax and have fun".
The goal of the retreat is to bring the families together during a trying time in their lives and to allow them to bond with other families in the same position. Jenny Boyett is a Family Partner for this week's retreat. She said, "they are amazing families and it's so great to see them spend time together."
The Hall family added, "I think the common theme here is the families just have a whole new outlook, we just don't take days for granted anymore."
Lighthouse will be hosting the retreat all summer, alternating between the beaches of Walton and Bay counties with a new group of families each week.