It’s a typical hot summer day on America’s playgrounds. Here I am, writing this story, and taking in what’s going on around me. There’s this beautiful multi-story play set designed with painted bright green foliage and safari themes which is perfect for edging out the daydreams of children who are running and playing and smiling.
One of the girls taking on the colorful obstacle course is in pigtails, sporting her Hello Kitty t-shirt as she deftly moves up the levels of a tall climber that has plastic windows– staring out into a world that knows too much. Another girl, this one not even two years old, teeters around with a big pink and yellow pom-pom fluttering on her romper as she explores in her adorable Easter Egg pink sandals trying to catch up with her big sister in the neon Hello Kitty tee.
This is a safe place. This is joy. This is family.
You see their mom and dad smiling gently and watching them, admonishing them when things get a little too rowdy.
And just a short drive away, about 45 minutes north of the city in Mount Gilead, there’s another place where daydreams play out this summer for many other kids too.
High ropes courses that older kids can take straight into the country sky. A swimming pool with brightly colored adirondack chairs waiting for children to come and sit, taking breaks between splashing in the clear blue water. Real tee-pees that are lit up at night by campfires and songs.
But this place is magical beyond what you and I know in our everyday lives and on our everyday playgrounds back here in Columbus.
This is Flying Horse Farms. And the children here have different struggles than yours and mine might have.
They are children with terminal illnesses, chronic illnesses, and other difficult diagnoses. But the beauty here and the magic here is in this: they are finding incredible joy.
I first was introduced to Flying Horse Farms before I had my first child. The camp reached out to me to see if I wanted to come out for a tour. I instantly fell in love with their story.
The camp is part of the SeriousFun Children’s Network. When he was alive, actor-philanthropist-businessman Paul Newman founded the organization, that originally was known as The Association of Hole in the Wall camps.
Here is that hole in the wall at Flying Horse Farms, inside a big red barn at the front of the property.
The story of that hole in the wall, as Chief Communications Officer Kristy Eckert puts it, is simple and beautiful.
“When you go through this, all of the sickness and stresses go away.”
The camp is hosting 70 campers a week this summer. And because they are special campers battling serious diseases they also have 2,400 volunteers to help make camp happy, healthy, and full of magic. Part of that group is doctors and nurses who specialize in the illness the camp is focusing on from week-to-week. The rest are kitchen workers, cabin counselors, program specialists, and work crews that work on various projects.
When I visited they were preparing for the Pulmonary/Nephrology/Craniofacial camp session. But they host everyone from heart patients, to children battling cancer or rheumatoid arthritis.
The dining hall is filled with light when I walk inside, even though there are no campers there that day. Brightly painted banners hang off the walls with handprints and stick figure designs, like a fraternity or sorority homecoming week memory to some of us. This represents how they feel about their home-away-from-home.
Eckert tells me eating can obviously be stressful for many of their campers. They had 40 DIFFERENT allergies to cater to last summer alone. So the point of the dining hall is to be joyful and inclusive for everyone. They love to chant “we all sing like the birds in the wilderness” before they get their dinner.
The children who come here are from throughout our region, many from Ohio but plenty from New York, Pennsylvania, and Indiana and beyond.
With every kid facing serious health concerns, it’s critical that an emergency room and treatment center is on-site. It’s called the WellNest. And when Eckert takes me inside, it’s like no other doctor’s office I’ve seen before. The exam rooms were designed by artists from Abercrombie & Fitch.
The biggest bean-bag type chairs you can find are ready for kids who are struggling psychologically with their physical illness. Two child-life specialists are always on staff to help them decompress and talk it out. As you might imagine, depression comes hand-in-hand for many of these children who are facing a life of specialist office visits and treatments.
The week at camp is prepared and vetted for these campers, from their standard treatment needs down to the smallest of details with any physical activity.
“We don’t do any activity that can’t be modified for all of our campers,” Eckert told me.
That means kids in wheelchairs can still go up that high ropes course! They’ve made an adjustment for that activity through a belay system. The same is true for a fishing trip on their lake, there’s a No Tip Canoe that in no circumstances will tip over. And a good thing for the fish, it’s a “Catch, Kiss, and Release” policy.
“We try to make camp super joyful,” Eckert tells me as we walk the grounds that are so lush and green after this summer’s rain, “But it’s also about embracing the challenges in their lives.”
One thing that is challenge-free: how families pay for camp. They don’t pay a dime. The waiting list is long, they open up registration on midnight January 1st and spots go quickly.
So many kids to help, and just not enough spots right now. When Eckert tells me this, I feel my heart dip a little bit. Flying Horse Farms would love to be able to host 120 kids a week, rather than the 70 they are now, but it takes time to reach that goal.
Many corporate donors and individuals have given money, time, and more to make this possible so far. The camp also applies for grants. It costs $2500 for one kid to attend. That number make look daunting to some of you reading this, but again… here comes the magic of this organization and those that support it. The camp has this Wish List on Amazon where you can go and buy something as simple as toilet paper or Elmer’s glue to a Four A Day Weekly Medication Organizer. It’s a very tangible way, according to Eckert, to feel like you’re making an impact on these lives and this hallowed place.
“You don’t have to write a $5,000 check to make a difference at camp.”
From the costumes inside the community theater to the fully air-conditioned cabins that look like they’ve been decorated by the best of “glampers”, the entire place is inspiring and full of life… even when campers aren’t on the property.
The camp is making serious strides in these campers’ lives once they leave too. There’s actual research proving it. Eckert shared with me some research done at the camp and a few others by the Yale University Child Study Center.
“79% of parents reported an increase in their child’s confidence
…75% noticed an increase in maturity
…74% reported an increase in independence
…and 80% reported an openness to try new things.”
Talk about something new– one of our last stops was that high ropes course. It’s 40 feet tall and Eckert tells me this is the spot to see transition at camp. They usually go for it at the end of the week and once kids go through it– they feel like they can do anything.
Back here at my playground in Columbus suburbia, my visit to Flying Horse Farms filed into my recent memory, I am still touched by the joy I found walking on those grounds and knowing what that organization has been doing for sick kids for the last several summers.
The little girls in this part of Central Ohio have left the playground to go home and have dinner at their tables.
But I know the laughter, the singing, and the magic will go on well into the night tonight at Flying Horse Farms.
That’s a safe place. That is joy. That is family.