Roundup River Ranch is all heart, especially this week | VailDaily.com

Roundup River Ranch is all heart, especially this week

GYPSUM — After 10 years and 4,000 campers, Roundup River Ranch founding president and CEO Ruth Johnson still gets misty-eyed when she talks about her kids and the way the Vail Valley has embraced them.

"We are so grateful to the community and the Vail Valley. They have embraced Roundup River Ranch, and it has made all the difference," Johnson said.

Hearts aglow

It's fitting and proper that the heartwarming 10th anniversary event comes at the end of heart week.

Each week, campers come from near and far, and Roundup River Ranch serves a specific medical condition of set of illnesses.

This week is heart week, 72 kids, with whose hearts are vulnerable, but their spirits are indestructible.

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Some have new hearts, transplanted to replace the troubled hearts they were born with. Some have hearts that will never developmentally be normal, so they have artificial circulation. Some campers won't survive to be adults.

Jennifer Ortiz has a new heart, transplanted at the age of 12. She's 21 now, a 2013 graduate of Battle Mountain High School, and started college at the University of Colorado.

She is waiting for her second heart transplant.

Ortiz was a camper the first two years Roundup River Ranch was open. Now she volunteers as much as possible with the seasonal staff, as much as her heart will let her, between doctors appointments.

"Camp is a special place. Volunteering I met all the kids, and I want to see them every year," Ortiz said.

When she was 12, she was sick for two weeks with a cough, so she went to the emergency room in Vail. They took a chest X-ray and realized her heart was enlarged, so they sent her down to Children's Hospital in Denver. She was on the transplant list only four days before she got her new heart.

Her new heart doesn't slow her down much, and she's certain her second one won't either.

By they way, she's changing her college and career path from biomechanical engineering to nursing.

"She has the same scar I do"

Margaret Brammer is a social worker with the Shaw Regional Cancer Center. She spends a bunch of her vacation time at Roundup River Ranch.

"To have this right in our backyard is amazing. We live in such a generous valley. It's something I feel that I need to do," Brammer said.

She used to be a pediatric social worker and would see kids in the hospital, going through challenging times. These days, she spends most of her vacation days volunteering at Roundup River Ranch.

"It's been great to see them on the other side, and getting the opportunity to connect with others," Brammer said.

Last Sunday, a girl and her mom from a small rural community were strolling along one of the Roundup River Ranch paths, when the girl turned to her mom and said, "Mom, look! That other girl has the same scar I do!"

She had never seen anyone with the same scar. She had never met anyone else who had a heart issue.

The girl gazed up at Brammer and asked, "Are there going to be other kids here like me?"

"Yes," Brammer said, "71 other kids."

"Did you hear that mom? There are 71 other kids like me!"

"For them to have that, and for me to use my time to help them understand they have a community they belong to, is so important," Brammer said.

Climb and zipline

Jason had never had the opportunity to go to a regular camp because of his complex medical issues. Now he has.

Jason dances, sings and laughs … a lot. Joshua chewed holes in his tortilla during lunch to magically transform it into a snowflake. He rushed over to his doctor, Dr. Adel Younoszai, who is enjoying his sixth season and 11th session at Roundup River Ranch.

Younoszai knelt down so he and Joshua see eye to eye, both literally and metaphorically.

Jason conquering the climbing wall is representative of what these kids go through, Younoszai said.

"Courage is not lack of fear, it's what we do in the face of it," Younoszai said.

Jason was halfway up the climbing wall when he froze and started sobbing. Still, in a few moments, his tiny arms and feet began moving again, one step after another, his cabin mates cheering him on, telling him where to move next.

Younoszai watching in thrilled amazement.

"His size and his age, I never thought he would, but he did," Younoszai said.

But he did. Patch, Jason's stuffed animal, went up before him.

"If Patch could make it to the top, I could," Jason said.

Then he and Patch ziplined down, grinning and laughing.

Home away from home

It's not unusual that the first time a child comes to camp is also the first time the child has been away from his or her parents, and also the first time the parents have been away from the child. It's both tough and liberating, Younoszai said.

"Many of them have never had the chance to take risks, to get out from under the umbrella and be with other kids," Younoszai said. "At Roundup River Ranch, they're socially accepted by their peers and counselors. It's really empowering for them. Their parents say they come back different, more confident, more autonomous. Camp plants that seed, and if it's properly nurtured, it will grow."

"It's a chance for them to experience things that other kids take for granted," Younoszai said.

There is a difference between the disease and the child.

Younoszai is on staff at Colorado's Children's Hospital and teaches at the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine. He keeps coming back to Roundup River Ranch because he loves it. In fact, it has changed the way he handles patients.

"You finish school, but you always learn. This makes me a better physician," he said.

Younoszai said at the hospital they see patients for 15 to 30-minute appointments. They talk about the diagnostic results and whether things are getting bad or getting worse. They say good luck, and they'll see you in six months or a year for your next appointment.

""In the hospital, we deal with the disease. We don't have the opportunity to stop and say, 'How are you doing? How's your relationship with your husband or your wife? What happening at school?'" Younoszai said. "This gives us a week of immersion into the lives of these kids.

"We've seen kids who happen to have heart disease at camp, instead of heart disease that happens to be in a child," Younoszai said.

All heart

The heart is complex and amazing. So are these kids.

"Some kids have one pump, and the term some people use is 'half a heart,'" Younoszai said. "Think about what the heart means to us in society: poetry, song, the movies. You have a big heart, you have a loving heart. And now you're a child who has been told you that you have half a heart."

These kids grow up anxious about who they are and what their future is. They hear us talking to their parents about how we don't know how long their child is going to survive, how we don't know what they're going to like in 10 years or 20 years, and all the complications. That's takes a toll."

Roundup River Ranch changes kids and families.

"I can't tell you how many times the family has told me he or she is just a different child. Then they see quieter, more confident and more willing to go out and take some risks," Younoszai said.

"Camp is like a wellness patch. It's medicine we give for wellness, as opposed to the medicine we give for disease," Younoszai said.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and rwyrick@vaildaily.com.

About Roundup River Ranch

Roundup River Ranch provides free year-round programs and camp experiences to children ages 17 and under with serious illnesses and their families.

Roundup River Ranch is located 50 miles west of Vail, where campers can take a vacation from being a patient” and get back to being a child.

Local philanthropist Alison Knapp founded Roundup River Ranch in 2006. Knapp took Paul Newman’s vision and dream of bringing a Hole in the Wall Camp (now SeriousFun Children’s Network) to Colorado.

Roundup River Ranch is affiliated with Children’s Hospital Colorado and other highly regarded medical facilities across the Rocky Mountain region.

Roundup River Ranch can be supported and contacted at http://www.RoundupRiverRanch.org or by calling 970-748-9983.