There is a place up Colorado River Road in Gypsum where children’s dreams, literally, come true. A happy place where children do things they never thought they would or even could do. It’s a place where they’re welcomed with open arms and where they can just “be.” It’s peaceful. It’s beautiful. It’s extraordinary. And for a few weeks it’s their loving home. It’s Roundup River Ranch where kids with serious illnesses can have some serious fun!
Roundup River Ranch carries out the vision of actor Paul Newman, who founded the first Hole in the Wall Camp (now SeriousFun Children’s Network) in 1988 in Ashford, Connecticut. The camp was named after the gang in Newman’s film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Both camps are part of a worldwide association of camps that serve children, ages 17 and under, and their families coping with cancer and other serious illnesses and conditions.
It all began in 2006, when Alison Knapp, a local philanthropist, officially founded Roundup River Ranch. She recruited a diverse board of directors that included Ruth Johnson, who now serves as president and CEO of the ranch. Over the next five years, the board, staff, corporate partners, volunteers and many others worked tirelessly, and finally welcomed their first campers on July 6, 2011.
“The support we have had is such an example of ‘it takes a village,’ ” says Johnson. “Ten years ago we were literally just sitting around having coffee and thinking about what to do first. And now, ten years later, we have a site. A site where we have six sessions (each focusing on specific illnesses) in the summer with three sessions off-site in the winter. We have been able to serve 5,000 campers to date. It was our wildest dreams and we achieved that and more. And looking back, we had pretty bold dreams and it’s so amazing to see it all.”
The kids are welcomed at the entrance to camp by a crowd of cheering staff and volunteers, and then escorted to the “depot” to meet their cabin nurse, counselor and the other kids they will “cabin” with for the next week. And this is not just an ordinary depot. There is a whimsical treatment to the waiting room. At its center, a sombrero-shaped couch where new campers find themselves immediately able to get to know each other. Literally, it’s a circle of love.
The nurses station was specially designed to look like a caboose. In here all the medications for the campers and staff are stored. In fact, the ranch serves approximately 20 different medical conditions with 33 different diagnoses. For example, a medical condition might be cancer, but there are various types of cancer.
“The nurses take medications to the campers. In that way, we normalize the camper’s experience of having a condition,” explains Dr. Marita Bledsoe, medical director. “So, first thing in the morning, the nurses take the medicines to the cabin. And then to every activity, say, if they need an inhaler or anything during the day. At meals, everyone at the table – the campers, the staff, the volunteers – take their meds so that everyone at the table is taking medication at the same time.
“And that’s a huge deal for these kids, because usually they’re the only kid in their family or the only kid at their school who has to take medications. So, they look around and ask, ‘Everyone here has to take medicine?’ In fact, some campers say you can only go to camp if you’re on meds. It takes huge coordination. We gave over 11,000 doses of meds last summer, and luckily had 20 pharmacy volunteers, which made an incredible difference. Every dose has to be exactly right. And this summer, we know it’s going to be about the same amount.”
Over the summer, the ranch will hold six five-day camp sessions for children who are being treated for such illnesses as heart, lung, sickle cell and kidney disease, neurologic or genetic disorders, cancer and brain tumors, amongst others. Camp weekends, which take place in the spring and fall, are for entire families who are dealing with a specific illness.
And having serious fun is really what Roundup River Ranch is about! As the lyrics of the song, Get Happy, suggests, the campers “forget their troubles and get happy.” And that’s indicated in all that they do and say. In fact, at any time, campers and staff alike can go into the costume closet, put on a costume and walk around like that all day. No one even looks twice. It’s simply, plain fun! One camper says, “It is just a whole week to forget about everything and just go have fun.”
The camp’s yurt is where the kids can be inventive and show off their talents in unexpected ways – be it with paint, clay, crayon or watercolor. Some make “worry dolls” to put under their pillows to make all their cares go away. Others might write poems or make bracelets and masks. You can easily see pure joy on their faces as they create.
On any given day, you will find kids out and about, be it hanging from the zipline, horseback riding, conquering a challenge course (a very tall climbing pole) fishing, learning archery or even putting on a show. You name it, they do it. Every single camper is up for the adventure. They want to learn. They want to conquer. They want to do things they never, ever thought they could do. And at this camp, anything is possible.
The camp has made it a priority to accommodate every single child. For instance, beanbag chairs are used in the kayaks and canoes to support campers who rely on wheelchairs, have neurologic conditions or other conditions that would usually compromise their ability to participate. Various accommodations are evident in everything that a camper might need when participating in a sport.
The camp is all about the children encountering new challenges and gaining confidence.
The experience of one camper, Madi, who had attended camp for years, says it all. Madi was was afraid of heights, and was unable to tackle the Challenge Course. “Because I’m 17, and this was my last year of camp, I knew I needed to tackle the course and leave all my fears on the table,” she reveals. “With the support of my friends and counselors, I actually climbed to the top of the wall and zipped down the zipline. It was amazing! It made me feel so brave. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that moment.”
It’s remarkable how much more confident the kids become after just one week at camp. “I was a little nervous. Then I got a little braver. Then I got in a boat,” says one camper.
“When I am not at camp, I am shy and I am usually on my own. But at camp I talk about myself and things around me,” says another.
And still another says, “I can’t believe I did that. I can’t wait to see what I can try next.” “The word I use to explain camp is ‘transformative,’” says Dr. Adel Younoszai, a pediatric cardiologist at Children’s Hospital in Denver who has attended the camp’s cardiology weekend since 2011. “Kids come in, often times for the first time away from their parents – and it’s true for teenagers as well as for young children – and they have a chance to get out and explore their environment. It’s a place where they get to hear ‘yes’ to almost every question. ‘Can I try that?’ Yes, you can! It’s not whether they can do something. It’s just that we have to find the right way so it’s safe.
“So the kids come in and really go from being shy and not sure what to expect. And when they leave, they’re full of self confidence. They’ve learned so many things about themselves. One of the things I hear over and over is that when they’re here they don’t feel like they’re being judged. They are around people who traveled the same journey.
“I think it’s the same thing that a lot of kids go through when they go to summer camp, as summer camp can be transformative for anyone. But for kids like this, the difference in the gain is so much greater.”
In 2015, Roundup River Ranch acquired The Farm, a 40-acre ranch adjacent to the existing property. It provides additional staff housing and a new home and with its expansive views of the Colorado River and a long, picturesque trail ride, it’s ideal for the camp’s equestrian program. As well, an additional building that will be a combination of offices for the organizational staff, housing and an observatory is in the planning stages with hopes of breaking ground this year. The ranch is also working on a major solar initiative.
“There have been thousands and thousands of people who have been involved and instrumental in their own way in helping us to accomplish and make this camp a reality,” says Johnson. “The gratitude and appreciation from all of us at the ranch cannot be measured. We have about 1,000 volunteers that come from all over the country. And most of them come for a full week or our three-day family camp. This year our goal is to serve about 1,400 campers.”
The camp is totally free of charge to the camper and the families. “The campers are the heart and soul of everything we do,” shares Johnson. “We run on people power. It’s important to remember that a lot of thought goes into the ‘fun’ you see at camp. It’s really about achieving intentional outcomes for our campers through fun. And we want them to take home a heightened resilience, self-confidence and not only positive, but permanent changes to how they feel about themselves and skills they are able to perform. We want all of this to serve them well throughout their whole lives. “Talk about the healing power of ‘place,’” continues Johnson. “This location was chosen to support that. We’re in a canyon on 125 acres along the Colorado River.”
When he opened his first Hole in the Wall camp, Paul Newman said that he “wanted it to be a place where kids can ‘raise a little hell’ and have the chance to be a fun-loving, worry-free kid.” And, over the years, his camps have changed thousands of lives. And, certainly, Newman’s vision clearly lives on at Roundup River Ranch.