Throughout the year, the Lighthouse Family Retreat brings children fighting cancer to Santa Rosa Beach for a week-long retreat filled with fun, rest and plenty of beach time with their family.
The Georgia-based, non-profit organization has been giving families from all over the country the chance to reconnect and relax for 13 years. The program is free to families battling childhood cancer. At each retreat, volunteers try to present kids with fun activities such as volleyball, swimming, sandcastles and crafts along with a talent show to end the vacation. Last Friday, kids were treated to a train ride with Cubby Caboose, the polar bear conductor.
You've seen Cubby and his train circling around the Destin Commons, but this time he made a special appearance in the Gulf Trace area, stopping by the each of the rentals Lighthouse kids were staying in. Kids took plenty of pictures, got a ride in the train and were even given a Cubby coloring book.
The back story on Cubby has more depth than the average cartoon character. The polar bear has returned from the North Pole with a mission to save the world by encouraging kids of all ages to reduce, recycle and reuse things they'd normally throw away. Cubby's battery-powered train is even environmentally friendly.
Jean Pierre Petit Guiot, owner of the Cubby Caboose franchise, was present — even though you couldn't see him. Encased in the polar bear costume, he spent more than two hours with the kids giving them plenty of cuddly hugs and friendly waves and even let some sit up front with him on train rides.
The Lighthouse Family Retreat makes as big of an impact on the volunteers as it does the families it serves.
Six years ago, Chris Patterson and his wife were making plans to go on the retreat as volunteers when they got the heartbreaking news that their daughter had leukemia.
"It was a week to come together as a family and feel whole again," Patterson said. "The kids come together and get a week of feeling normal. They're with people who understand what they're going through."
Now that their daughter fought her battle with cancer and won, the entire family goes back to the retreat, not as a family with a sick child, but as volunteers.
The local community has been very supportive of the Lighthouse retreats over the years, said Chris Woodruff, executive director. The Donut Hole, Chick Fil-A and Bud and Alley's were just a few of the local businesses to donate food to the retreat. Each time Lighthouse comes to town, the organization likes to stay on the beaches of 30A.
"It's where we got started," Woodruff said. "It's a home for our retreats."
Tammy Mickle is a first-time volunteer. While she documents children riding the train and hugging Cubby, she gets a little teary-eyed. Mickle brought along her 12-year-old son to the retreat, saying she wanted to give him the chance to give back and serve.
"He loved it," she said. "He's had so much fun with the other kids."
Although Lighthouse is a Christian-based retreat, Woodruff says they do not discriminate against beliefs. The week-long vacation is not meant to convert, but to heal.
"It's a time where children and parents can laugh again as a family," he said.
For more information on the Lighthouse Family Retreat, visit www.lighthousefamilyretreat.org
For more information on Cubby Caboose, visit www.cubbycaboose.com