EAGLE COUNTY — In 2006, Colorado philanthropist Alison Knapp metaphorically threw a stone into a pond. The stone was Knapp’s vision to build a camp for children with chronic and life-threatening illnesses, a camp that would be part of Paul Newman’s legacy, The Serious Fun Children’s Network. The pond was Eagle County, home to Vail and Beaver Creek resorts and a community known for its philanthropic largesse and culture of volunteerism.
Naturally, her stone created ripples that spread. Soon the ripples touched local philanthropists who shared Knapp’s vision and professionals who could make it happen. In 2006, Roundup River Ranch organization was born.
In late 2008, with a $20 million capital campaign aptly named “Campaign for Laughter” well under way, an economic tempest blew across the globe and chilled philanthropic giving in all charitable sectors. Ominous daily forecasts warned of a worsening economic tempest.
In Eagle County, for-profit projects failed or were mothballed. Jobs evaporated. The economy sputtered. In the Vail Valley, long timers were stunned to discover the fallacy of their belief that the resort was immune to economic calamities. To Knapp and her team, knowing what daily challenges their future campers faced helped transform what many thought were impassable roadblocks into mere speed bumps.
Money was not the only key to success. A medical camp requires a hospital partner. Chair of the medical advisory committee and founding board member Dr. Lia Gore, of University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Center and Children’s Hospital Colorado, helped make that happen. At the initial meeting with Knapp that Gore facilitated, the CEO of Children’s Hospital Colorado signed the founding hospital partnership agreement.
When questioned if she ever felt discouraged about financing the camp, Knapp responded, “There was never a time that I thought that it would not happen. I truly believed that all the pieces of a project of this magnitude would come together.” Her confidence, determination, and leadership paid off.
Once the land on the Colorado River north of Dotsero, a place the Utes called “Hole-in-the-Sky” due to its mild winters, and capital for construction were secure, Knapp and camp CEO Ruth Johnson spent many months meeting with the property’s neighbors for input, keeping them apprised of progress. Rather than the oft-contentious situations that arise when new projects take shape, neighborly warmth reminiscent of early Colorado pioneer spirit greeted the Roundup River Ranch team.
From great meals to donated services, the parties forged a neighborly bond. However, that doesn’t mean demands weren’t made on the camp. One neighbor insisted the archery range be located on a flat area, near the river. No, it wasn’t a noise abatement demand. The neighbors across the river simply wanted to make sure they could see the kids having fun! Already it was obvious the camp’s positive impact would go beyond those children living their dreams of fun.
Just what the doctor ordered
Three difficult economic years later, on July 6, 2011, Roundup River Ranch welcomed its first campers, 34 seriously ill children, for the time of their lives. Eagle County became home to the first — and still only — comprehensive medical camp in Colorado. By the end of 2011, 231 campers had experienced elusive joy and laugher. When the last “goodbyes” are said in 2014, Roundup River Ranch will have served over 1,300 campers in four years.
In a thank-you note from one young camper in 2011 expressing her gratitude for the enjoyment of camp, she wrote that she learned, “it’s OK to be different.” Truth is, when it comes to just wanting to be a kid, youngsters facing daily medical and emotional challenges beyond their years are no different from other children. The desire to have fun is a common childhood aspiration, but for seriously ill children, it’s more often than not an unattainable dream.
At Roundup River Ranch, an endless fountain of fun, dreams do come true. In the words of Dr. Gore, many of whose patients are campers, the opportunity for these children to experience the joys of camp is “just what the doctor ordered.”
Regardless of financial ability, campers attend tuition free. This no-tuition policy ensures no financial need, large or small, stands between campers and this thrill-of-a-lifetime experience. Financial support is used to offset operating costs that include transportation, round-the-clock medical care and all the ingredients needed to create positive camping experiences. Therefore, donations — cash and in-kind — and fundraising events are the camp’s lifeblood.
What better way to raise funds than to gather at a harvest of culinary talent? The camp’s most significant annual fundraising event, A Grateful Harvest, uses the unifying power of food to contribute 26 percent of the camp’s operating funds. In its first two years, the event netted a total of $1,209,262, providing ample funds for over 1,000 children to attend camp.
For the third consecutive year, Saturday, Trent’s Cookhouse, which normally serves 100 campers and counselors, will become a fine-dining venue for 330 guests. After months of planning under the guidance of camp event planner Shawn Kirschner, five leading Vail Valley chefs will create in the cookhouse’s small kitchen a sumptuous, meticulously designed four-course dinner preceded by copious hors d’oeuvres served on the lawn.
Joining Grateful Harvest veterans chef-restaurateurs Kelly Liken (Restaurant Kelly Liken), Paul Ferzacca (La Tour) and Nick Haley (Zino Ristorante), are chefs Vishu Nath (The 10th on Vail Mountain) and Edison Mays Jr. (Flame at Four Seasons Vail). Chef Heather Weems also returned this year, donating her time and talent as coordinating chef, the guiding force and strong link between kitchen and front of the house.
Vail Resort’s Master Sommelier Sean Razee, beverage director of mountain dining, joined returning sommeliers Greg Eynon of Vin48 and Jarrett Quint of Matsuhisa Vail to recommend wine pairings for the chefs’ culinary creations. This year, generous wine sponsors for each course were secured, a novel concept to obtain excellent, well-paired wines without the associated high cost.
No doubt beautifully crafted and paired dishes enjoyed in such a bucolic settling will once again create an atmosphere of generosity where children’s dreams are born.
A Grateful Harvest is just one example of how ripples from that first stone Alison Knapp threw continue spreading, bringing more seriously ill children whose spirits can be healed and their lives altered to Roundup River Ranch.
Paul Newman is remembered for many wonderful, entertaining films, but to thousands of children and their families across the earth, his legacy will always be creating a place of refuge where fun and laughter replace pain and tears. In his words, “It’s not that children say ‘thank you’ for a wonderful time, it’s that they say ‘thank you’ for changing my life.” Perhaps we should say “thank you” to them for showing us how to enjoy life under the most trying of circumstances.
For more information about Roundup River Ranch visit www.roundupriverranch.org. To purchase tickets for A Grateful Harvest, call 970-748-9983.
“There was never a time that I thought that it would not happen. I truly believed that all the pieces of a project of this magnitude would come together.”