A Night At Victory Junction

In memory of Adam, #45

It’s hard for me to volunteer anywhere on a weeknight.  The work day complete…I am ready for “me” time.  But on Tuesday nights in the summer, a group of balloonists spend their evenings at the Victory Junction Gang Camp, in Randleman (about an hour and a half away from Statesville), giving kids the experience of a tethered balloon ride.  Last night was our first of the season and while I had planned to go, the weather reports almost kept me at home.  It didn’t appear that balloons would be going up outside for the night, and staying home seemed like a great idea.  They could have done it without me….but when it got down to it, I didn’t want to miss out!

Rain doesn’t stop things……Victory Junction is a place of possibilities and after quite a few years of doing this, the pilots have developed a system.  On rainy days, they take the envelope of the balloon into the gym and cold inflate it. We cover the “floor” of the envelope with gym mats and the kids get to walk inside the balloon.  It always amazes the kids to see it from this perspective.  Me, too.  More than one has come up with the idea of camping out in it.  Several see the mats and start their gymnastic moves, somersaulting from one mat to another.  Most just look around in awe and enjoy having their pictures taken.

Oh wait….you may not have heard about Victory Junction.  Hunky blue-eyed movie star Paul Newman is somewhat responsible for it all.  When he started producing food products like his salad dressing, a foundation was begun with the profits.  He came up with the idea of giving kids with chronic and serious medical conditions a camp experience.  His Hole in the Wall Gang Camps began.

The late Lee Petty, his son Richard and Richard’s son Kyle are a family well known for their abilities to race cars. They have been long time legends in the NASCAR world.  (Even I know who they are!)  Kyle’s son Adam was following in their family racing legacy, but in May 2000 he was practicing for a race in New Hampshire, and was killed.   In their grief, the family wanted to remember Adam in a positive way, so Kyle and his wife Pattie partnered with Paul Newman to build their own spin on the Hole in the Wall Gang Camps in memory of Adam. The racing community came together, and they have built an amazing place for sick kids.  They have gone all out to make a camp that is a kind of wonderland.  The best of the best.  All with a racing theme.

Some of the racing community volunteers

You learn very quickly that this is not just your traditional summer camp.   This week’s camp was for kids with Kidney/Rheumatology/Immunology disorders.  There is a medical team on site and they are prepared to deal with emergencies and to administer treatment for the kids who attend.  The camper to staff ratio is low…often one on one.  Summer staff is made up of about 70 people, mostly enthusiastic and compassionate college kids, who were whittled down from over 800 applications.  One of the guys last night was telling me that he not only had the applications and such, but four hours of phone interviews, and also interviews in person.  None do it for the money because as most know, camp work doesn’t pay much.  This guy had just graduated from Appalachian and was headed to grad school next year at ECU to study Recreational Therapy.  What a great way to gain experience in his chosen field….but also what a great life experience for him.

And then there are volunteers.  Lots of volunteers.  Who have to pay their own transportation costs to get to the camp…..some coming across the country to spend a week or two working for free.  And loving that they can.  Kindness seems to be a big staffing qualification.  I remember talking to a lady a couple of years ago who flew across country, at her own expense, for the “privilege” of working very long days in the kitchen.  That was her vacation.

Tuesday nights are almost a carnival atmosphere.  We have the hot air balloons, but they also have race teams that come and demonstrate things like how to change tires really, really fast.  There is usually a band playing.  Last night there was “the submarine”….I never did find out exactly what that was or what they were doing.  There is sugar in abundance…..cotton candy, Icees, a Krispy Kreme donut station where they can dip their own donut into all of the chocolate and sprinkles they want.  And sugared excitement everywhere.  There were tattoos somewhere, too.  One of the college kids who was already quite tattoed on his own, led a group of boys in a “Tattoo, tattoo, tattoo” cheer.  That was where they were headed next.  (Don’t worry….I don’t think they were going to be permanently inked like he was!)  Yes, there are a lot of cheers and a lot of songs along the way.  They are bonding with the kids and making great memories.  

I don’t know my race car drivers, but even I recognized Richard Petty walking around last night.  You had to laugh at the race team, these masculine guys who had grabbed feathered boas for the evening.  One gave his to a little girl and I heard her say “And I didn’t ask him for it…..he just read my mind and knew I wanted one.”  I’m not sure which of the guys it was, but he made her feel special and noticed.

The camp has some of the best facilities that you will see anywhere.  There is putt putt, there is a movie theater, there is a place where they can go and have their hair streaked with color, there is a lake where they can go fishing.  They do talent shows and skits and are just kids.  There is a sensitivity to their needs as sick kids, but the care to that is both constant and subtle, so the kids don’t focus on their illness but they can have a normal camp experience.  Kids do not pay to attend camp….it is all a gift.  The $2,500 average cost per child is raised by different charity events and gifts spearheaded by the Pettys and other racing industry and individual and corporate friends.  

It was a good night last night.  A night of smiles.  A night of thank yous….to us, but also from us for all of the people who make this camp work.  The rain may have changed the plans for the evening, but if you adopt the spirit of a kid, it doesn’t matter much.  Fun comes from the inside out…..not from a bunch of plans.  You just smile, and laugh, and make a game of it all.  And it is all better than expected….a great way to spend a few hours of your life.

Being childless, I will never fully understand the pain and frustration of being the parent of a sick child.  Not being a medical researcher or provider, I can’t cure their illnesses.  Having known sick children, though, I understand that they don’t see the big picture in quite the way that we do.  They live for today.  Each moment of life is precious and much can be crammed into a short period of time. They are resilient and as much as possible, want to live those days with fun and excitement.  Just maybe we can add a smile to their day.  Life is about quality and not quantity…..and Victory Junction attempts to bring the quality to these kid’s lives so each day of their lives are stretched.  It’s a great investment of a Tuesday night.  Or of any night.

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