SeriousFun camps: Just what Newman envisioned for children

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MT. GILEAD, Ohio – SeriousFun Children’s Network, the official charity of INDYCAR, used the opportunity of a gorgeous Thursday to showcase a camp for children with serious illnesses near the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for the visiting NTT IndyCar Series community.

The beauty of Flying Horse Farms stretches beyond the 200-plus acres, and the love and care being shown to campers resonated with the special guests, including INDYCAR driver Charlie Kimball.

Kimball, who became a father late last year, didn't need long to witness how campers ranging from eight to 17 could have life-changing experiences on this property.

“(Campers) come away with more composure, more confidence, more empowerment and more independence, and that helps the family for the rest of the year,” he said.

Providing healing, transformative experiences for children with serious illnesses and their families is the camp's mission. Highly intentional programming with large doses of fun and laughter offer new experiences for campers as well as respite for their families. Camp is often the first place these campers stay away from home that isn't a hospital room.

What also helps the families is that the camp is free to attendees, which was always the intention of SeriousFun Children’s Network founder Paul Newman, thanks largely to corporate donations. Even basics such as bed linens are provided so campers from financially challenged homes do not have to incur any additional expenses.

Flying Horse Farms also includes a number of special features including:

Each bed comes with a personalized quilt crafted by locals calling the effort "Snuggled in Hope." Campers take the quilts and the accompanying pillowcases home to continue their connection to the camp.

The “WellNest” is a full-service medical center, but the uniquely decorated patient rooms offer a retreat feel. Several rooms have bunk beds and Nerf basketball goals. There’s also a quiet room, referred to as the Meadow, with bean bags, where the staffer, a child life specialist who provides psychosocial support to campers, is known simply as “Cricket."

All daily pills, including those taken by camp workers, are distributed in the open, either right outside the dining hall or inside it. That normalizes the medication process and removes any stigmatism attached to it.

The outdoor pool is zero entry, allowing campers in wheelchairs to enjoy it. The same access is provided at the lake, where the ADA-compliant dock allows everyone to experience riding in a canoe.

All medical, psychological and social needs are considered. Campers living with sickle cell disease often struggle to manage body temperature fluctuations, so pool temperature and a nearby heated room provide a quick warmup to minimize a pain crisis.

Togetherness is built through group singing, campfires and shared activities. For adventurous campers, teepees are available to experience sleeping outdoors. Included are generator hookups for campers requiring oxygen to sleep through the night.

Last year, Flying Horse Farms provided more than 900 camper experiences on site -- six weeklong summer sessions and five family camp weekends in the fall. This facility is one of 16 such Full Member camps under the SeriousFun Children’s Network banner, including eight others in the U.S., five in Europe and one each in Israel and Japan.

SeriousFun Children’s Network also includes 14 partner programs, those which are carried out in low-resource countries throughout Africa, Asia and the Caribbean in collaboration with trusted local, national and international partner organizations. And while the work of carrying out these camps and programs is certainly complex, it all grew from the philanthropy of Newman, the actor and motorsports enthusiast who co-owned an Indy car team until his passing in 2008.

INDYCAR joined forces with SeriousFun Children’s Network in the spring of 2018, with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver Graham Rahal, who drove for Newman-Haas Racing, and Team Penske's Josef Newgarden among the leading advocates. Kimball, who drives for Carlin, and Andretti Autosport's Zach Veach -- in the area for the Honda Indy 200 -- were joined at the camp Thursday by officials from INDYCAR and Firestone. Flying Horse Farms is located 15 miles southwest of the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

Today, Newman’s youngest daughter, Clea Newman-Soderlund, is SeriousFun’s official ambassador (pictured below), and she is wholly invested, visiting camps with regularity and working out of the Support Center in Westport, Conn. Leaders from all the camps and programs collaborate to grow the combined effort.

“The energy is really amazing,” Clea said.

Clea Newman-Soderlund

After volunteering as a counselor at Newman's first camp, Clea was truly changed by the experience, although not necessarily expecting she would still be doing this work decades later.

“It completely changed me, but I couldn’t have imagined how life-changing it is for the campers and their families,” she said. “It’s incredible.”

These independently managed camps share a vision, but they also address different needs, varying through the season. Flying Horse Farms will focus on cancer patients and blood-related diseases one week, heart conditions another. Each week has its own nickname so campers feel less threatened by the grouping.

To campers, the emphasis is on Newman’s original intent.

“The reason we’re called ‘SeriousFun’ is because that’s how Dad described going to camp – it’s serious fun,” Clea said. “It’s just plain fun for the kids.”

Nichole Dunn, the CEO and President of Flying Horse Farms, believes the mission is being accomplished.

“At camp, kids live with a fearless and free attitude as they laugh, play and dance, and we have the people, the equipment and the dedication to make this feel like a home," she said. "Every part of being at camp is intentional.

"Most of the campers come here cautious (to engage) and leave here with the confidence to enjoy themselves. This allows us to stand by the believe that as you come and go through the gates of camp it is the only place in the world that whether you are coming or going, you are always home."

Clea has just one regret about Flying Horse Farms: Her father visited the property during its acquisition stage, convinced to embrace it while standing at the edge of the lake. It opened in 2010, nearly two years after his passing.

“Dad was really excited about this place and was so proud there was going to be a camp in his home state,” she daughter said. “I’m just sad he didn’t get to see kids here.”

INDYCAR will highlight the work being done by the SeriousFun Children’s Network during next month’s race weekend at World Wide Technology Raceway (Aug. 23-24), the oval track located just east of St. Louis. Stay tuned for details on how to support the cause.

SeriousFun Children's Network

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