Rylee Cavins' sunny personality earned her the nickname Smiley Rylee. But when the 10-year-old Marysville girl was diagnosed with bone cancer two years ago, something changed. "She started to close up," said her mother, Heather Cavins. "She just became quieter and quieter."
After spending a week at The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Ashford, Conn., though, Rylee started to act like her old self.
"I felt normal," the fifth-grader said. "It was neat to see other kids who had cancer outside of the hospital."
The camp, founded by actor Paul Newman, serves children with serious illnesses.
"I told them, 'You put the smile back on her,' " Heather Cavins said.
This summer, Rylee will have another reason to smile: She will be invited to attend a new Hole in the Wall camp called Flying Horse Farms. And this one is close to home.
Flying Horse Farms, which opened in October in Mt. Gilead (about 50 miles north of Columbus) is the result of years of hard work and dedication by Jenni and David Belford. The Bexley couple donated 200 acres of land and a significant sum of their own money to help build the camp. The $20 million fundraising effort is ongoing.
"This camp-the creation and the evolution of it-has been the result of so many people rolling up their sleeves and saying, 'How can I help to make this a great camp for the kids who need it most?' " Jenni Belford said.
Flying Horse Farms will be the first property in the Midwest affiliated with the Association of Hole in the Wall Camps. The camp-which will serve children with cancer, heart disease, hemophilia and other illnesses-can host 120 children at a time and hopes to accommodate more than 2,500 children and family members annually. It features a fishing pond, indoor sports court, craft cabin and outdoor amphitheatre. A swimming pool, ropes course, riding stable and wheelchair-accessible tree house will open before the 2011 summer camp season starts. It is free for everyone who attends.
The Belfords used to work with a local nonprofit to bring ill children to their Mt. Gilead farm for a day of fishing and hayrides and saw first-hand what a positive impact new adventures could have. The family was inspired by the families that visited them and the way the outings lifted their spirits, said Jenni Belford, a mother of four.
"We don't have an ill child. That doesn't lessen the need," she said. "It's so exciting to see the difference it's going to make in the lives of children and their families."
The couple began dreaming of a way to help more children, and in 2005 contacted the Association of Hole in the Wall Camps-a family of 10 camps worldwide that serve seriously ill children. Doctors and nurses volunteer to work at the properties so children can enjoy camp while continuing necessary medical care. The camps have facilities that allow children to receive medications, dialysis or other treatments.
The association has exacting standards for medical care and programming, said Padriag Barry, director of camp support services for the association.
"It's a long and arduous journey to become a Hole in the Wall camp," he said. "You spend a couple minutes in front of David and Jenni and you quickly sense their single-minded determination to make this a reality. They've put their heart and soul into breathing life into (Flying Horse Farms)."
The level of medical care available at camp creates a sense of security for parents, said Clintonville mother Wendi Jenkins, whose son Seth attended The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in 2008 and 2009. Before Flying Horse Farms' physical camp opened, those planning it routinely sent Ohio children to other Paul Newman camps. Seth Jenkins was one of them. He died in March at age 13 after battling leukemia for six years.
"I feel so thankful that he had all these fun opportunities, because we were convinced that he was stronger than (his disease)," Jenkins said. "I can honestly say he had a good childhood."
Camp makes a dramatic difference in the lives of children with diseases, said Dr. Gerard Boyle, a pediatric cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic.
"There's no question that these patients rally," he said. "(Campers) inspire each other. They give each other courage to go through their next procedure."
The camps also provide an opportunity for doctors to observe their patients in a setting outside the hospital or exam room. He has made medical decisions after watching a patient play at camp, he said.
Camp also provides a week of respite from the demands of caring for a sick child, Boyle added.
"Many of these parents are so afraid of their child's diagnosis they never leave the child. They are never without that child. They are never without that constant worry," he said. "It's the first time they can cut loose since their child was diagnosed."
During the off-season, Flying Horse Farms serves children and their families through weekend retreats, said Cindy Lazarus, CEO of Flying Horse Farms. The sessions will give parents a break and provide opportunities for siblings to meet others children in similar situations.
"When there's a child with a serious illness, the impact is felt by the entire family," Lazarus said. "The weekend camps will allow the families to have moments of renewal together."
Flying Horse Farms also will open its doors to the medical community and social services agencies for retreats, classes and meetings. "Our goal is to have as many organizations working with children and families as possible come here," she said.
Lazarus, who retired from the YWCA earlier this year, returned to the workforce because she found the camp's mission so compelling.
Attending camp is a life-changing experience for the campers and the volunteers, Lazarus said. She and Jenni Belford have both volunteered at other camps.
"It's such an important reminder of what really matters in life," Belford said. "You feel like you've made a difference. That's a feeling you don't get unless you put yourself out there."