“I made a deal with God on the day of my diagnosis that if he let me live, I’d make a positive difference,” says Cronin. “Each minute I spend with these kids gives true meaning to the reason I’m still alive.”
To fulfill his vow, Cronin, a successful restaurant owner as well as a real estate sales executive with Coldwell Banker Conklin & Co. in Sun Valley, Idaho, volunteers for the American Cancer Society’s Camp Rainbow Gold, an outdoor haven for young cancer victims. It’s located near Sun Valley amid some of the most spectacular scenery in the United States. The camp has a full-time social worker and a medical team, but the fresh, pine-scented air and companionship may be the best medicine after weeks or months in antiseptic hospital rooms.
“You can see the kids change from the moment they step off the bus,” says Cronin, who’s also a major contributor to the camp. These often isolated children “see they’re not so different from other kids. Then the walls start coming down, and the bonding begins.”
For Allen Jones, 11, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2003, the camp represents hope. “Fifty-one weeks a year I think about dying. Camp is the one week I think about living,” says Jones, who has been coming to Camp Rainbow Gold for three years. He is now in remission but still fights effects of the disease.
Over the past seven years, Cronin has filled every role at Camp Rainbow Gold: board member, fund-raiser, counselor, activities director, and camp director.
Camp manager Meg Omel calls Rob “a human jungle gym who even lets the kids shave his head so that he looks just like some of them.”
Cronin loves every minute, he says, but the best part is “seeing the kids leave camp with more confidence and with the knowledge that they have something to give other kids with cancer. It’s a life-changing experience for everyone,” he says.
Not all the children who attend Camp Rainbow Gold win their battle. Andrew Colin died in 2003 from kidney cancer. His mother, Candy, remembers how he loved his time at the camp. Because of the severity of his illness, “he was there only 36 hours, but the transformation in his outlook was astounding, and it was all be cause of Rob and his wife, Kris,” she recalls. “They are an amazing and perceptive couple. They understand what it’s like to face the prospect of death and were able to establish credibility with my son.”
Since January 2005, Cronin has volunteered nearly 2,000 hours on behalf of the camp and recruited others to volunteer thousands of hours. He and Kris have also pledged $12,000 to the camp and been instrumental in raising $1.4 million dollars in two years. The money will be used for a new scholarship program to send former campers to college and to help the camp buy its own land and facilities.
The camp, founded by a local doctor in 1984, was struggling financially and wasn’t very well known before Cronin became involved, says Omel. “Now people stop me on the street to ask what they can do for Camp Rainbow Gold. Rob brought the camp back to life and continues to make it a better place for our campers and volunteers.”
Omel also credits Cronin with elevating her own life skills. “He’s shown me how to be a better business person—how to be honest and tough and fair. He’s also shown me how to be a better community member—to give back because you truly love people, not because you ‘have to.’”
Yet for all his efforts, Cronin says he’s always gotten more than he’s given. “Once you get involved with something like Camp Rainbow Gold, it just becomes a way of life. You can’t say anything but yes to whatever anyone needs.”