A dear friend of mine, Mark Maxwell-Smith, has carved out a new persona for himself under the name of PUN. A man who might otherwise have taken his retirement years to enjoy the fruits of a long and illustrious career, he chose instead to bring his warm heart and dedication to children to work as a volunteer at The Painted Turtle, one of Paul Newman’s Serious Fun Camp programs serving “medically fragile children with life-threatening and chronic illnesses ” and their families.
Mark demonstrates in a powerful way how we all can imbue our lives with meaning and joy through serving others.
A man with a lifelong passion for bringing joy to the world, Mark is a “volunteer extraordinaire,” according to former camp Executive Camp Director, Blake Maher. Maxwell-Smith has transformed his hobby of teaching magic to children as a venue for changing lives.
According to Maher:
“When PUN is around, the idea of ‘Camp Magic’ not only encompasses such important experiences as fun and friendship, but it expands to include an almost infinite list of other words that are transformative for children with serious medical diagnoses—words like ‘self- esteem,’ ‘independence,’ ‘hope,’ ‘empowerment,’ ‘renewal,’ ‘community,’ ‘inclusion. The list goes on and on.
“…Dressed in a loud magician’s coat, a floppy-brimmed hat, baggy pants, striped socks, and armed with magic tricks, cards, ropes, plungers, and laughter spilling out of every pocket, PUN … has the ability to change the course of a day, a week, and I’m sure in some instances a life, by the love and generosity he offers to each person with whom he comes in contact. One of the magical aspects of PUN is that he seems to be everywhere. His presence on camp brings a spirit of innovation: PUN develops special game show programs for camp that he intentionally designs with our camp setting in mind, even bringing extra equipment on site in order to transform such programs into a special experience.
“Not only does he hold program activities such as “FUN WITH PUN” in which children learn to perform magic and grow in their sense of accomplishment, or entertain children who are not feeling well at the camp’s medical building, but as if simply aware of need he unexpectedly appears in all sorts of places! He’s at the ‘Adventure Site’ to encourage children who are nervous about their first time on the ropes course and at poolside to sit with (and laugh with) a child who may not want to go into the water. He’s at Stage Night leading a group of campers in performing in front of an audience for the first time ever. He’s in the Dining Hall helping a shy child to come out of their shell and join others on the dance floor. He’s at the camp fire taking a whip cream pie to the face just to show kids how to have fun.
“Yes, PUN is a universal presence but what is even more amazing about him is the individual and intentional opportunities he creates to interact with each and every child—and the way in which those interactions impact a child to feel lighter, more confident, more appreciated, more special. And therein lies PUN’s true magic: his ability to affect positive change in a child.
“Picture this: PUN enters the dining hall, quickly scans the room for that child who is feeling awkward or withdrawn, immediately (yet casually) approaches them with his vast array of tricks and jokes and silliness, draws them out into conversation or activity, and within minutes has them laughing and participating in the camp program in a way that a short time earlier wouldn’t have seemed possible. His exchanges with children are always focused on building self-confidence and positive outcomes and in giving a child who may have been feeling inadequate a sudden revelation about just how much more is possible! His programming always considers how to empower a child to be more and he’s masterful in his ability to set a child at ease and make her feel as though she is the most important person on Earth—because to PUN at that moment that child is the most important person. He makes sure every activity he does is inclusive, always evaluating how to bring every child into an activity no matter how they might be different from their neighbor. PUN even wears knee pads on his knees so that he can kneel down to talk with children on their level!
“PUN also serves as a role model and teacher to the hundreds of volunteers who enter the gates of The Painted Turtle to donate their time for a camp session. PUN continually offers friendly and constructive tips, insights, and knowledge about working with children with medical conditions and contributing within the camp setting. He constantly shows a willingness to teach and mentor our volunteer community, and this impacts the program in immeasurable ways. PUN’s dedication also extends to volunteer recruitment…
“By my calculation PUN spends a minimum of 750 hours each year volunteering at The Painted Turtle camp sessions, and while this in itself is an incredible feat it is only a very small part of PUN’s volunteer story. In addition to these hours at camp, PUN spends another 250 hours a year volunteering at The Painted Turtle Outpost, the hospital outreach program we run each week in five different Los Angeles area pediatric hospitals. Through this program The Painted Turtle serves an additional 1,500 children each year and PUN volunteers at well over half of these programs. And if that weren’t remarkable enough still, PUN also participates as a volunteer for over 450 hours a year in all the programs at Camp Ronald McDonald for Good Times, a camp for children with cancer and their families. And still there’s more, unfathomable as it seems—PUN also volunteers hundreds of more hours with other organizations that serve children.
“Because of what seems the singular attention PUN gives The Painted Turtle, I often forget PUN does not volunteer exclusively with our organization. But take a stroll with him through any Los Angeles pediatric hospital and this becomes abundantly clear as children, parents, child-life workers, and medical staff alike call out to him by name as he walks by, thrilled to see his familiar face and silly grin and his welcoming spirit, as big as California itself…
“Never have I met an individual who is so selfless in his devotion to the good of others and to the hope of making children with major medical challenges happier and forgetful of their illness for at least a little while. Countless parents remark to me as they watch PUN and their child howling with laughter that this is the first time they have seen their child laugh in months…PUN somehow manages to have a rich and full personal life of his own life and find a mountain of hours to invest in bringing joy to others as well. For him, one informs the other.”
Since writing about PUN, Blake Maher has moved on to become Executive Director of the entire Serious Fun association. Mark and his wife Melinda have moved to Oakland to be closer to their own granddaughter. In addition to all he has done down south, PUN now has added regular volunteer visits to San Francisco Bay area medical facilities including Children’s Hospital Oakland and George Mark Children’s House.
I thank Maher for his amazing description of the work of a man I have known as a caring friend, father, husband, and grandfather for many years, and I thank Mark for his friendship and inspiration.
By doing what comes naturally to him, Mark simply shows us how one person can make this world a better place.