Sandcastle Kids: Local charity serves families battling cancer

SAVANNAH VASQUEZ 315-4412 | @destinlogsav
The Taylor family enjoyed a free sandcastle building lesson by Beach Sand Sculptures during their trip with Sandcastle Kids Inc. in November.

When a young child is diagnosed with cancer the entire family suffers a blow. This fact was enough for Santa Rosa Beach residents Shelley and Casey Joiner to start their non-profit, Sandcastle Kids Inc., which offers a week-long vacations on the Emerald Coast to just such families.

“My husband Casey is in real estate and I am a Registered Nurse in the neonatal ICU in Fort Walton Beach,” said Shelley. “In the last three years we just had it on us to give something back. We had friends and acquaintances go through childhood cancer and seeing what they went through inspired us to give some sort of gift back. We wanted to offer a weeklong vacation to give them some family time, time to get away from it all and just relax and enjoy the beach.”

The Joiners began work on founding their 501-3C in January of 2015 and reached out to local businesses and homeowners to gather donations and places to stay for the project.

“We partnered with the Sonder Project which is a global non-profit tied to 360 Blue Vacation Rentals,” explained Shelley. “They reached out to us to provide places to stay through their homeowners.”

Casey explained that 360 Blue sent letters to their homeowners asking if they wanted to participate in the project, and although they got some responses they are still in need of more donated places for their families to stay.

“Any homeowner that may have interest in donating, no matter what rental company, or even those not using a rental company,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be right on the beach as long as it has beach amenities easily accessed. But the closer to the beach the better.”

In November of 2015, Sandcastle Kids hosted their first family vacation. The Taylors, a family of four from Gainesville, Fla, had just come out of a year and a half of rigorous cancer treatment for their five-year-old daughter Avery. This was the first family trip the Taylor’s had taken since the diagnosis, and afterward the trip Avery’s mother Shelby was so grateful that she wrote a touching letter about the experience.

“In November, our family had the pleasure of celebrating our daughter’s one-year remission anniversary and 6th birthday in Destin,” she said. “The importance of bonding and relaxation for families, like ours, who have suffered or are suffering through the painful reality of a pediatric cancer diagnosis and treatment cannot be overstated.”

During their one-week stay the Taylors enjoyed a beach front condo, free groceries, gift cards to various local restaurants and amusement outlets and even a professional beach portrait session. The family was overwhelmed by the generosity of the Destin community.

“Thanks to all the local businesses that supported this effort and made our vacation truly amazing,” said Shelby. “It is our hope that the Destin community and beyond will continue to support this wonderful organization so more families can share this joyful experience. It was a once in a lifetime experience for our family and we truly made memories that will last a lifetime.”

When dreaming up Sandcastle Kids, the Joiners said they specifically wanted to reach out to families who were either going through treatments or recently finished them as she said there are not many charities that serve families during this process.

“There are a lot of things out there for children and adults who are terminally ill, but not for those currently going through treatment or celebrating remission,” said Shelley. “When we met the last family I didn’t think it would be as emotional as it was, but it was very rewarding to see how grateful and thankful they were. Everywhere they went they were sending us pictures and we still keep in touch today.”

Currently the non-profit has partnered with two different hospitals; Shands Hospital in Gainsville, Fla., and U.S.A. Children’s and Women’s Hospital in Mobile, Ala. The families that participate in the project all have children between the ages of one and 18 that have been diagnosed with cancer in the past 24 months and must be personally selected by physicians and social workers in the hospitals before being referred to Sandcastle Kids.

“We are currently working with two hospitals because we wanted to keep it where people could drive here,” said Shelley. “Eventually we will grow that and expand to where we could fly people here.”

In May, the non-profit will host their second family this time in Watercolor. Casey said they are currently looking for business donations in the 30A area to add to the list of amenities for the family.

“The families will either stay in Destin or the Santa Rosa Beach, 30A area,” said Casey. “We have them fill out information forms before they come, catered to what they want to do, we then cater to their ages and try to provide personalized trips based on what they like to do.”

For more information about Sandcastle Kids Inc., or to donate visit or call 850-502-9365.