Nonprofit Spotlight: Roundup River Ranch lets sick kids feel like kids
May 29, 2017
Summer camp: What kid hasn't dreamed about going?
The great American camp experience is often considered a rite of passage, one that not only exposes young people to adventurous activities and new friends but one that gives them a first taste of freedom away from home. Catching a fish for the first time, horseback riding through deep valleys, giggling with bunkmates after dark, singing songs by the campfire — with Mom and Dad nowhere in sight — can build a kid's confidence in his or her own abilities and provide an opportunity to simply enjoy being themselves.
But what if you're a young person with a serious illness or physical limitation — can you still dream about having such an iconic childhood experience yourself? The team at local Roundup River Ranch believes the answer should always be an unequivocal yes.
"Think of a traditional summer camp; that's what we look like," said Ruth Johnson, the camp's president and CEO. "But the difference is that we're equipped to meet the medical needs of kids with a wide variety of illnesses who have maybe believed at one time that they would never get to enjoy an experience like this. We adapt our activities to make sure that everything we offer is accessible to all who attend. Our goal is that they basically get to feel like kids again, instead of feeling like the one who's different."
Plus, Johnson added, "What we do is free of charge."
Roundup River Ranch is located about 8 miles north of Dotsero, sitting on 85 acres in a picturesque location along the Colorado River. The ranch is laid out with everything one might expect to find at a summer camp (a cookhouse, a horse corral and a small lake for canoeing and fishing, among other features) but it also includes a special building called The Depot, where medical professionals patch not only scrapes and bruises from play but meet the daily needs of the campers' individual conditions.
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"These are very sick kids with a variety of illnesses, and often they come to us having spent a lot of time in hospitals or inside at home because the care they need is so intensive," Johnson noted. "But with our physicians, nurses and medical volunteers we're able to fully support the kids while they're with us — allowing them to participate, have fun and enjoy the full experience without worry. We usually have about 10 medical personnel at camp during every session."
Opened in 2011, the camp is a member of the SeriousFUN Children's Network founded by late actor and philanthropist Paul Newman. It functions and raises money as a standalone entity but maintains a connection with other similar camps across the country. Johnson and her team raise approximately $4 million annually to ensure that the camp is offered free to every child who attends.
To date, it has welcomed more than 4,000 campers aged 7-17 years. Although the camp serves a large portion of families from the Front Range, many young Roaring Fork Valley locals have enjoyed its individual summer and family spring/fall sessions over the years. Cameron Hermes, who lives with his family in Carbondale, is one of them.
"In 2011, Cameron was diagnosed with leukemia," said his father, Mike Hermes. "He was only 6 1/2 years old when he started treatments. The next year, in 2012, we found out about Roundup River Ranch and he was able to attend as one of the youngest campers there. Since then, he has gone five straight years in a row now, and he loves it."
While Cameron was away at camp that first year, enjoying himself and developing a love of climbing and ziplining, the rest of his family was able to take a break. They could rest easy knowing that he was in the highly skilled, caring hands of ranch staff members. His parents were able to spend much-needed quality time with Cameron's twin brother, Logan, and take some time off work to be together. Still, they spent the week wondering when they might receive a phone call from the ranch.
"We had all these contingency plans in case something went wrong," Cameron's father recalled. But much to his surprise, he said, "We didn't hear from him for a week. We even went over a day early, and found him playing with new friends — he had absolutely no interest in going home early. After a really tough year, there was a marked change in Cameron. Camp was a tremendous opportunity for him to regain some confidence, and it helped our entire family, too."
Now in middle school, Cameron is currently looking forward to another camp session this July, when he will be able to tackle the ranch's climbing tower once again.
"The camp is just outstanding, it's one of the best things I've seen for these kids," his dad added. "The staff and counselors, the volunteers, the families and kids themselves — everyone gets so much out of it. There is just a lot of good that comes out of the camp that's even greater than each individual kid who goes in."
For information, including details on how to volunteer, visit RoundupRiverRanch.org.