RANDLEMAN, N.C. - Chants resonating from the clearing in the woods along with boisterous laughter are the first signs you have just entered the Victory Junction Gang Camp. Well, that is if you were asleep while driving through the gate, around the lake and through the tunnel onto the property.
When Brendan Gaughan recently visited with the chronically-ill campers he never expected to leave with a feeling of such awe. Despite the publicity the VJGC has received, Gaughan believes it is impossible for one to imagine the importance of the facility without visiting it while campers are on site.
“I didn’t really know a lot about [VJGC] other than what I read, and none of that applied,” Gaughan said. “The counselors had as much energy as the kids and kept them occupied with fun and games. The greatest thing about all of the activities was the reward the counselors got. Those kids were non-stop smiles!”
What began as a passion for Kyle and Pattie Petty in memory of their late son Adam has become a mainstay in the lives of the NASCAR community. The Pettys were inspired to construct VJGC after visiting Camp Boggy Creek, a sister camp to Paul Newman’s Hole-in-the-Wall Gang Camp in Ashford, Conn. Their inspiration was enough to unite drivers, sponsors, teams and race fans in raising funds and necessary items to assist with the camp’s $24 million construction bill. VJGC, which opened its cabins to campers the week of June 20, is a state-of-the-art, race-themed facility for chronically and terminally-ill children and their families.
All of the news about the camp during its construction phase did not convey the importance of the facility’s existence; only a visit now can do that. Campers arrive at VJGC in groups of children ranging from ages 7 to 15. Each week, or session, when a new group of children arrive, they are surrounded by other campers who all share the same medical condition. This summer, the camp is hosting eight sessions covering the following conditions: hemophilia/juvenile rheumatoid arthritis; sickle cell; heart/kidney disease; cancer; burn survivors/skin disease; spina bifida/asthma; epilepsy/seizure disorder; and HIV/immunology disorders/hepatitis.
The format allows for the children to share their time with others who have had the same experiences and to possibly forge lifelong friends. The atmosphere also allows the children to enjoy their youth in ways they and their parents never envisioned.
During Gaughan’s inaugural visit to the camp, which came in its second session, he was escorted around the camp by Austin Petty, the Pettys second of three children who worked one summer at Boggy Creek as a counselor, and Amanda Rogers, VJGC’s special events manager. During Gaughan’s visit, he danced, chanted with the campers, took a couple of pies in the face, ate snow cones and gained a couple of smiles himself. He enjoyed his time with the children so much that he is already planning his return.
“This was incredible,” Gaughan told the younger Petty and Rogers, “I’m coming back, but I want to be here when the kids get here on Sunday so I can greet them and hang with them some more.”
While continued financial support is necessary for daily operations, Gaughan believes the monetary sustenance is a small part of the big picture. Personal time is needed now that the camp is open and Gaughan believes everyone who contributed to VJGC’s construction would benefit from visiting during a camp session, to witness the children’s excitement first hand.
“One of the things I noticed was the camp’s theme painted on a wall, ‘If you can dream it, we can build it’,” Gaughan said. “The dreams are a reality now, happening daily, and without physically participating in a session at VJGC, I don’t think everyone will realize just what they have done. There just aren’t any words for it. One thing that has always impressed me about children is their honesty and ability to adapt. The kids who come to VJGC appreciate the activities and the chance to just be kids.”
With all of the advertising VJGC has produced, Gaughan said his favorite commercial was prior to the camp’s opening.
“One of the best commercials I have ever seen was the one with Bobby Labonte blowing up the float toy for the pool.”
In the commercial, Labonte is shown with a small camper in a dirt pit and asks the question, “Did you ever feel like you were in the right place at the wrong time?”
According to Gaughan, “That says it all. I know a lot of money has been, and will continue to be, donated. The key is that anyone who contributed to this cause should take a couple of hours out of their schedules and visit. The kids appreciate what ever little time they can get. Depending on whom the contributors were, like if it is a NASCAR driver, to see someone who has only before been seen on TV, the kids are mesmerized. This is bigger than life for them. It definitely puts my feet back on solid ground and helps me to remember that there are bigger things in life than a race track.”