By Susan Shinn
RANDLEMAN ó Visit Victory Junction Gang Camp and you come away with a bit of magic. There’s a specialness to this place unlike any other summer camp.
In many ways, though, it is a typical camp. Counselors slathering kids with sunscreen, silly songs and cheers, smiles and hugs.
But Victory Junction Gang Camp, founded by Kyle and Pattie Petty in memory of son Adam, is for children with chronic illnesses.
For 10 weeks during the summer, up to 125 children per week visit the camp. Thanks to the generosity of NASCAR drivers and fans and numerous other donors, their visit is completely free.
It costs about $2,500 per child per week to fund the facility, so fundraising is a constant activity. The camp’s operating expenses alone are $6.5 million a year, according to Mark Hendrickson, director of medical communications and development.
It’s not just the million-dollar donations that are important, Hendrickson notes. Donations of $50 or less make up 60 percent of all money given.
That’s why fundraisers such as the Chick-fil-A Kyle Perry Charity Ride Across America take place.
The ride rolled into Victory Junction on Wednesday, one stop on a 2,800-mile route from Maine to South Florida.
The nearly 300 motorcyclists completely filled Victory Circle in the middle of camp. They were greeted by 125 enthusiastic campers, who were attending a week for children with burns, skin diseases and craniofacial abnormalities.
The charity ride sponsored this week of camp.
Hendrickson travels the country, making presentations to hospitals and other groups. The camp has 22 partner hospitals nationwide who send children and volunteers. The camp is part of the Hole in the Wall Gang camps.
But visiting the camp is the best way to understand it.
“You’ve got to see it,” says Hendrickson, who notes that the camp offers tours year-round.
That’s one reason for the stopover in Randleman, so that the participants can meet the children for whom they’re riding.
Steve Anderson of Newnan, Ga., is joining the ride today. He describes himself as “stoic.” All that changed the first time he visited Victory Junction.
“I said, I’ve gotta do this,” he says of participating in the ride.
Anderson said earlier in the day that the hardest part of the ride is seeing the children. But that doesn’t seem the case today. If the drivers shed any tears, they hide them behind their dark sunglasses.
Instead, it’s a time for hugs and smiles as the drivers dismount their motorcycles and the children come to greet them.
Morri Irvin, an electrical contractor from Concord, has been riding in the event for 12 years.
“It’s incredible,” Irvin says. “You get goosebumps. It’s such a special place. If it wows us, I can only imagine how it wows these kids. You just absolutely want to be a part of this.”
Besides welcoming campers, Victory Junction fills some 2,000 volunteer slots every year. The camp also offers family weekends in spring and fall.
Claire Rutan, volunteer director, sees many repeats among the volunteer corps.
A parent who lost his son to cancer spends three weeks volunteering each summer.
“I come to be in the bubble,” he told Rutan.
Volunteers come for the children, for the experience, Rutan says. They might be interested in a specific illness. Each week of summer camp is dedicated to serving children with specific illnesses.
Rutan says that the biggest need is for male volunteers.
Volunteers must be at least 19. One 85-year-old woman comes from California to spend two weeks working in the kitchen.
Rutan has worked with volunteers from 44 states, South Africa and Canada.
Volunteers assist the summer camp staff, which numbers 80. The camp has a full-time staff of 70.
Camp director is Pronto Parenteau.
During the stopover, he’s interviewed by the Race Wizard, a behind-the-scenes show on ESPN about NASCAR.
It’s his job, he explains, to give the children the time of their lives while they’re at camp ó to help them feel as normal as possible, to feel just like everybody else.
That’s what counselors do, too.
Tricia Dallas of Jamestown, N.Y., turned 21 this week. She had a root canal earlier in the week, and all she wanted for her birthday was to be with the seven girls in her cabin, ages 12 and 13.
Her co-counselor was Miranda Tarlton, 20, of Charlotte.
“I love it!” Dallas says. “It’s amazing here.”
Her campers agree. Sarah “Smiley” Hart of Midland is 13. This is her fourth summer as a camper. She was burned when she was 9, and came to camp the next summer.
“I want to come back as a counselor when I get older,” Sarah says. “I’d like to be a burn doctor. I love my counselors.”
Sarah says that any camper who’d like to attend should check out Victory Junction’s Web site (www.victoryjunction.org).
“Don’t let your parents talk you out of it,” she says. “My mom was scared to let me come, but it’s so worth it. You kinda come out of your shell.”
Victory Junction Gang Camp is now scheduling volunteers for fall weekends. If you’d like to sign up, contact Claire Rutan at 336-495-2016 or crutan@victoryjunction. org.
The Race Wizard segment on Victory Junction Gang Camp will air 10 a.m. Sept. 9 on ESPN 2.
Contact Susan Shinn at 704-797-4289 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Susan Shinn