Saturday, March 21, 2015

Flying Horse Farms

What can I say about an organization that has become such a part of my family's life?  An organization born from a simple yet profound idea that the late actor and philanthropist Paul Newman brought to life.  A camp  for kids with serious medical illnesses.  An opportunity for children with cancer, HIV, heart disease, kidney disease and many other maladies to do something many healthy kids do each summer.  Paul saw that camp had the power to transform children's lives by bringing them to a place where they could shoot arrows, ride horses, get muddy, laugh, catch fish, sing songs around the campfire, realize they were not alone in the world with their disease and all the while having the medical resources available to take care of them through the week.  A place where kids could be kids, forget about treatments for a while and in Paul's words "raise a little hell".  

Camp gives these children and their families something beyond what modern medicine provides.  I have seen campers, parents and volunteers profoundly changed by their experiences at camp. We call it the magic of camp.  The magic started in Connecticut over 25 years ago and has spread around the world as the SeriousFun Children's Network of camps and programs.  Our family was blessed to have our camp family there when our daughter was battling cancer.  Her two trips to the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp were with out question the highlight of her year.  Our family benefited so much from camp that we all became active in helping the founders of Flying Horse Farms turn a dream into reality with a SeriousFun camp here in Ohio.

My daughter and I were asked to speak at FHF's groundbreaking ceremony and share our experiences with camp.  Emily was in Cincinnati for treatment that week for what we  believed would be a short stay, but the night before groundbreaking it was pretty apparent she would not be able to make it to the event.  I told Emily that I didn't think I could leave her side and speak at camp the next day.  Her response speaks volumes about how important camp was to her.  "Dad" she said with fierce determination, "You have to go!  You have to open camp!"  I knew she would never let me stay.  So I went and am so glad she pushed me out the door to be part of such an important mission. 

Since the trip to Cincinnati was going on longer than we expected, after I finished speaking, I drove back to Cleveland to get some new clothes and things.  The next day when I arrived at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital we found out that Emily's cancer was growing out of control and there were no longer any viable medical options.  Emily was due to fly to CT in a week, but sadly because of her condition she did not get the chance to go a third time.

Our family became even more involved after Emily's death.  It was a way of honoring her, a way to give back to an organization that had done so much for us, a way to help others facing the same challenges as we had and for me at least it was a way of staying sane amidst my battle with the intense pain and immense blackness that accompanied losing my daughter at the age of 12. Camp has also given me more joy and deep friendships than I could have ever have imagined.  For this, I am eternally grateful for all of the amazing people who make up the camping community and most especially my Flying Horse Farms family.

Early on in the life cycle of building camp, I wrote the following poem to describe this remarkable project that I had become deeply committed to along with many other talented, compassionate and visionary people.   I am very proud to say that our combined efforts have been a rousing success and we now serve hundreds of campers each year and are still growing.

The Birth of Camp
By John Lewis 
(all rights reserved)
Challenged children play
Faces splashed with smiles
Laughter smudged on skin and hair
Sunlight, green grass, fresh air, fun
The warm glow of magic transforms their hearts

Wisps of feelings, experiences, ideas begin to coalesce
A nascent thought wafts upward into consciousness
Something more
Something to prolong the glow
Something like…
Yes, camp!
Of course, camp!
But how?

A living breathing organization begins to form
With vision
With land in hand
Venture into unmapped territory

Seeds are sown
Of awareness
Of mission
Of friendship
Of selfless need

Tilling the status quo
New contacts
Events planned
More meetings
Networks grow
Decisions made
Success, disappointment, frustration, doubts
Disagreements, coming together, compassion
Common goals, change, determination, struggle
The cacophony of trying

Cultivation, cultivation, cultivation
Progress sprouts
Imperceptible at first
But then
The campaign halfway home
Machines rend the ground
Paths, holes, trenches appear
A water tower rises, proclaiming us for who we are
A barn comes down
Cabins sprout from the frozen ground,
Crocuses of our collective will,
Reminders of the season to come,
Promising a full blossoming of camp
Buildings, campers, staff, animals, activities
Grown on the fertile ground of our dreams
So tenderly nurtured
So painstakingly prepared
By us
The believers
Of things like horses with wings
The farmers
Of a distant and daring dream
The builders
Of a place to sustain the magical glow
A place called camp
Our camp
Their camp
Flying Horse Farms

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