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Medical

Ohio camp offers boost to seriously ill youngsters

Donations alone fuel Flying Horse Farms

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    A "flying horse" on the weathervane is on top of the "Big Red Barn" at Flying Horse Farms in Mount Gilead on June 26.

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    Bill Reynolds, Flying Horse Farms chief financial officer, and Alex Schenk, 13, of Perrysburg examine a bluegill that Alex caught at the camp.

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    Hunter Roberts, 13, of Perrysburg, prepares to shoot a bow and arrow with the help of volunteer Bill Kreeger.

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    The ‘Big Red Barn’ stands near the entrance of Flying Horse Farms and is where volunteers and seasonal workers are housed.

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    Camp counselor Brandon Mock, left, and campers Alex Schenk, 13, and Jaylen Ford, 12, bang their fists on the table as they sing a song on the boys’ last day of camp.

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    Camper Zachary McGregor, 15, takes a ride on the zipline at Flying Horse Farms.

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05n1flying-4

A "flying horse" on the weathervane is on top of the "Big Red Barn" at Flying Horse Farms in Mount Gilead on June 26.

THE BLADE/AMY E. VOIGT
Enlarge | Buy This Image

MOUNT GILEAD, Ohio — Hunter Roberts, 13, sat at the edge of the pool, distraught that he didn’t pass the swim test.

He had to wear a life-jacket. A bright orange life jacket. He’d rather not get in the pool at all.

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His best friend, Alex Schenk, 13, grabbed a life jacket of his own and approached Hunter. Even though he could swim, he put on the jacket anyway. “It’s OK,” Alex said. “It’s not that bad. I’ll wear one with you.”

The two boys entered the pool, slightly uncomfortable in their bright orange armor but exceedingly comfortable in each other’s company.

Around them splashed a dozen other boys and girls, most of them with long, vertical scars down their chest. To most adults, the scar is recognizable. It means heart transplant. But to young teenagers unfamiliar with the mark, it means deformity. Youths with heart ailments are frequently bullied by their peers at school, said HeatherSchenk, Alex’s mother.

But not at Flying Horse Farms, the Mount Gilead, Ohio, camp that Alex and Hunter, both Perrysburg residents, have attended for the second summer. Alex suffers from congestive heart failure with other complications, and Hunter has Takayasu’s arteritis, a rare disease that inflames the body’s largest arteries.

Despite their uncommon heart conditions, at Flying Horse Farms, Alex and Hunter are the norm.

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Opened in 2010, Flying Horse Farms provides a free, traditional camp experience to children ages 8 to 15 with serious illnesses. As a nonprofit, the camp’s yearly budget of $4.4 million is funded entirely on donations.

Flying Horse Farms is the first camp in the Midwest to join the SeriousFun Children’s Network, an international organization of 30 camps and programs founded by acclaimed actor and Ohio native Paul Newman. The camps serve more than 600,000 children with life-threatening ailments and their families.

The Ohio camp offers weeklong, overnight sessions in the summer and respite weekends in the spring and fall. It draws most of its campers from Ohio, although children from other areas are welcome to attend. It is in Morrow County, about 110 miles southeast of Toledo.

‘In good hands’

To Alex’s parents, the establishment of Flying Horse Farms came as a blessing. Mrs. Schenk routinely searches through heart group forums online to find activities for her son. When she came across the camp, she knew she wanted to enroll him.

“If there is a chance for Alex to participate in something that benefits him, I want him to take it. And I wanted him to have a camp experience,” she said.

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Bill Reynolds, Flying Horse Farms chief financial officer, and Alex Schenk, 13, of Perrysburg examine a bluegill that Alex caught at the camp.

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Mrs. Schenk admitted that she was worried about Alex extensively during his first summer at the camp in 2014. She would call Mama Bear, a camp hotline for worried parents, to ask about Alex. During his second year, however, she felt comfortable not calling at all.

“It is difficult to let him go,” Mrs. Schenk said. “He is fragile, and it is hard putting all the responsibility in someone else’s hands. But we do it for him. Camp is a gift to him. It is an amazing experience that he’ll never forget.”

Alex confirmed that he had never spent time away from his parents for more than two hours before Flying Horse. Though he was nervous about camp at first, he has grown to love it.

“We knew he was in good hands when he told me that he didn’t even miss me,” Mrs. Schenk said.

‘Good medicine’

The motto of Flying Horse Farms is “where camp is good medicine.” Instead of just a pile of pills, the camp prescribes archery, fishing, swimming, arts and crafts, and even a high ropes course to its campers.

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Hunter Roberts, 13, of Perrysburg, prepares to shoot a bow and arrow with the help of volunteer Bill Kreeger.

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On any given day that camp is in session, a visitor can spot boys and girls enjoying their time on the grounds, hiking through the lush forests or in the air ziplining across the sky.

The activities — though similar to those at a customary summer camp — are specifically designed to build confidence in Flying Horse Farms’ campers. Staff members routinely say that they want the children to “raise some hell” for the first time in their lives and break from their reserved shell to hone their empowered self.

“When you look at the high ropes course, think about what it means for a kid in a wheelchair to go across a zipline,” said Mimi Dane, president and CEO of Flying Horse Farms. “Seeing children fly through the air with their wheelchairs sitting on the grass is moving. Those experiences stay with them.”

Mrs. Schenk noticed a rise in Alex’s self esteem after attending camp. “He went ziplining. He shot a bow and arrow. He has accomplished things he thought he would never do,” she said.

In fact, Alex enjoyed his camp experience so much that he routinely tells his mother that he wants to volunteer there when he is too old to be a camper. He wants to give back to the camp that gave him so much.

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The ‘Big Red Barn’ stands near the entrance of Flying Horse Farms and is where volunteers and seasonal workers are housed.

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Alex’s feeling of confidence and motivation is not unusual for a camper who has attended a SeriousFun camp. 

A 2014 report published by the Yale Child Study Center found that 79 percent of parents reported an increase in their child’s self-confidence and 77 percent noted an increase in self esteem.

“The results are mind-blowing. Success does not even begin to describe Flying Horse Farms,” said Ryan Brownfield, the camp director.

Mr. Brownfield recounted a camper named Jeremy who used to grind his 20-something pills and eat them as a powder. After his week at camp, Jeremy learned to take his medication normally and told Mr. Brownfield, “people can never call me a coward anymore.”

“There’s 50 stories like that at camp every single week,” Mr. Brownfield said. “I wish I could tell every child in the Midwest to come to camp. It’s a life changing place.”

The ‘WellNest’

While Flying Horse Farms has its own formula of activities to help its campers, it also harbors state-of-the-art medical resources and an experienced health staff.

The medical facilities and personnel aren’t immediately recognizable, however. Leaders designed the campus to look normal, without reminding the campers of a hospital, a location all too familiar for them.

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Camp counselor Brandon Mock, left, and campers Alex Schenk, 13, and Jaylen Ford, 12, bang their fists on the table as they sing a song on the boys’ last day of camp.

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The 24/​7 primary medical building, called the “WellNest,” contains two exam rooms, one acute care room, two overnight rooms, and a psycho-social relaxation space. Although the WellNest boasts resources comparable if not better than a small hospital, it looks nothing and smells nothing like one. The rooms are colorfully decorated and themed by artists from Abercrombie. One room, known as “The Meadow,” contains beanie bags for additional comfort.

Campers who end up in the WellNest are still lucky enough to enjoy the camp experience.

Someone will stay with the them the entire time they are at the medical facility and play games and hang out with them.

“It looks and feels nothing like a traditional hospital,” said Barbara Galantowicz, affectionately known as Glinda the Good Witch to the campers and medical director to professionals.

But underneath a veil of playfulness, Flying Horse Farms is a medical institution that takes the health of its campers seriously, leaders said.

05n1meal-5

Camp counselor Brandon Mock, left, and campers Alex Schenk, 13, and Jaylen Ford, 12, bang their fists on the table as they sing a song on the boys’ last day of camp.

THE BLADE/AMY E. VOIGT
Enlarge | Buy This Image

Every three years, the camp must undergo an independent review of its medical services to maintain accreditation, and twice a year the Flying Horse’s staff meets with the personnel of other SeriousFun camps to troubleshoot and ensure safety.

Flying Horse also strategically organizes the camps to prevent medical issues from arising. 

Its weekly summer residential camps are classified by illness, so one week might be for children with heart complications while the next is for cancer patients.

This division allows the camps to guarantee that at least two full-time doctors specializing in the week’s condition are available on site.

Dr. Gerard Boyle, a children’s cardiologist and founding member, said, “The camp is designed to be ready for the worst-case scenario. Parents can rest easily knowing their kids are having fun and are in good hands. I mean, how could you not love it here?”

Contact Anthony Kayruz at:  akayruz@theblade.com or 419-724-6050.

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