Summer camp is a tradition for millions of children across the nation, but that joy can be stripped away for those fighting serious illnesses.
That’s what makes Flying Horse Farms so special for several dozen Dayton-area children.
The camp, located 42 miles north of Columbus in Mt. Gilead, Ohio, provides an opportunity for children with serious health conditions to have a camp experience free of charge to their families.
“Camp has the potential to be incredibly transformative for young people. I know I would have been a very different person without camp,” said Ryan Brownfield, chief program officer at the camp. “Flying Horse Farms makes that possible for kids with serious illnesses, who can’t go to summer camp anywhere else.
The camp is part of the SeriousFun Children’s Network founded by Paul Newman. The network is a series of 15 independently managed and financed camps serving over 600,000 children and families across five continents.
Flying Horse Farms was founded in 2010 and is the first in the network located in the Midwest. The camp hosts 900 children and families each year divided into six week-long summer camps and eight weekend camps for families held during the spring and fall.
“We do specific diagnosis weeks during the summer. The benefit of having specific diagnosis weeks is that we can specialize and adapt. If we know we’re going to have a really large number of children in wheelchairs then we take activities and move them closer together. There’s no one size fits all plan. It takes us being super dynamic and flexible working collaboratively with the program and medical teams,” Bownfiled said.
More than 50 campers from the Dayton area will visit camp this year. The majority of those children are recruited by Dayton Children’s Hospital Medical Director of Pediatric Cardiology Dr. Joseph Ross.
Dr. Ross and his wife Sharon Ross, a hematology and oncology nurse at Dayton Children’s, volunteer every year at the camp. “Without a doubt if this is not a safe camp than we have no business being here,” Dr. Ross said.”There are dangers involved from the heat and water. Some kids need oxygen. Some need respiratory support and that’s just for heart week.”
Angie Scott of Kettering is sending her son Tyler, 14, who suffers from heart disease as well as asthma and pulmonary issues to camp for his third summer.
Scott said it was difficult to send her son to camp for the first time.
“I was a nervous wreck. It’s a lot different for a parent of a kid who has medical issues. You worry what if they have an asthma attack or his heart acts up. I was very nervous,” Scott said. “But Dr. Ross goes to the camp and I keep telling myself this is going to be a different thing. If something happens he’s better off there than in our own home.”
“There’s an incredible amount of surveillance during the day. As medical staff, we are constantly walking around. We have someone at every area making sure the campers see us as well as the counselors because they aren’t medical personnel,” Dr. Ross said.
The camp has a full medical facility led by Medical Director Dr. Barb Galantowicz, who has ushered in many changes.
“Dr. Barb has done a phenomenal job. When you make the medical part more stable and cohesive you can pretty much deal with anything,” Dr. Ross said.
During Hematology and Oncology week the camp will be staffed with five doctors, five registered nurses, two infusion nurses, and a pharmacist. Also included on the medical team are three child life specialists.
“I would bet you that 90 percent of the kids we have here would not be able to go to camp anywhere else.” Dr. Ross said.
A study conducted by Yale in 2014 surveyed 645 families from five different SeriousFun camps including Flying Horse Farms. The study concluded that campers demonstrated increased confidence, self-esteem, and social skills one month after camp.
“Two years ago I had a boy from Dayton coming off of having Burkitt Lymphoma. I told him the only way you could go to camp is if you can get out of this hospital. When he got here he could barely walk. We took him to the high ropes course and the program team hoisted everybody up. That way they didn’t single him out. He did it and was so happy. I took care of him for three years and I never seen him so depressed. In five days when his dad came to pick him up. He had put on five pounds, he couldn’t stop smiling and he told his dad he didn’t want to come home,” Ross said.
The next step for the camp is growing its attendance. This was the first year that the camp had to put families on wait-lists. “Our goal is to go from this 900 to 1,500, but that means everybody has to work harder. We need more volunteers, we need more money makers,” Dr. Ross said. “But everyone is on board and knows what it’s going to take.”