SOUTH FORSYTH — When staff members walked up to Kirsten Atfield, she immediately directed them to her younger brother, Trey. He had been diagnosed in 2005 — he was 6 then — with leukemia, so she was used to people wanting to know how he was doing.
But they weren’t looking for him.
“It totally shocked her they wanted to talk to her,” said the siblings’ father, Cliff Attfield. “She just got treated as important as any other kid there.”
This exchange happened in 2007 during the Forsyth County family’s — also including mom Tracy — first time attending a Lighthouse Family Retreat, a week-long seaside vacation given to families living through childhood cancer as a way to bond, relax and find hope in God.
The Norcross-based organization holds 14 retreats annually in the Florida panhandle in 30A beach communities including, Seaside, Watercolor, Rosemary, Seacrest and Gulf Place.
Each retreat welcomes 12 to 14 families and about 50 volunteers.
The Atfield family has been volunteering at retreats since that first year, when Trey was 8 and Kirsten was 10.
“Siblings [of children with cancer] often get left behind in the shuffle,” Atfield said. “The first year [of treatment] is really rough. After that, his total treatment was 39 months. But unless you knew he was on treatment for the last two years, you wouldn’t know he was sick.”
Going on the retreats helped their family connect in a way organizations like Make-a-Wish could not provide, Atfield said.
“There’re all kinds of places to do things for [childhood cancer patients]. We did Make-a-Wish. Those were all wonderful, but most of that stuff was entertainment for the family,” he said. “And Lighthouse was entertaining, but it was really healing for our family. It continued to bind us together in that hard time.”
And they’ve been giving back ever since.
“In 2010, we started volunteering for the first time, and we’ve gone back every year,” Atfield said. “Now Tracy and I, for the last four or five, we facilitate a small group for the parents who are there.
“Usually it’s the first time parents have the chance to talk about what’s going on in their lives with a group of people who know what’s going on.”
It’s also often the first time parents have left their patient alone since being diagnosed.
“At first there’s a little bit of unnerving to that,” he said, “but it surprises them when they get back and [their kid is] having such a blast. It’s great for the kids, and it’s a little freeing for the parents.”
Atfield, who works at Gwinnett Church in nearby Sugar Hill, said every time his family goes back “we’re reminded of some of the hard times.”
“You see families going through things you went through years ago. But it also brings us back to the good thoughts we had there,” he said. “We feel like we get back as much as we give.”
Even though his daughter graduated from South Forsyth High School in May and is about to begin her first year at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., Atfield said the family has “every intention” of returning to Florida to continue their volunteer work and family bonding.
“Every year the kids ask when are we going back,” he said. “It’s never an if; it’s always a when.”
Trey Atfield just began his junior year at South.
“He’s been out of treatment since December of 2008,” Atfield said, “and for kids, when you’re five years out of treatment for leukemia, they’re cured.”