by Catawba College Senior Tabitha Solomon of Salisbury
While most college students took a breather from schoolwork this past summer, three Catawba students, junior Hilah Teague of Southern Pines, senior Willie Olds of Kinston and junior Sherri Hill of Salisbury, unselfishly chose to spend their break tucked away in the tiny little town of Randleman, N.C. working with kids diagnosed with chronic or life-threatening illnesses at Victory Junction Gang Camp.
Victory Junction opened in the summer of 2004 and was created in memory of the late Adam Petty, son and grandson of two NASCAR legends, Kyle Petty and Richard Petty.
Catawba sports management major and camp spokesperson Willie Olds explained that young Petty had a vision before he died. "Adam wanted a place where kids with illnesses and diseases could come to forget about their sickness for a week and have fun like normal kids. After he died, his family created the camp in his memory," said Olds.
Along with the general construction plans, Olds explained that the Pettys had other specific ideas in mind for the camp after it was up and running. "One of Adam’s dreams was to add something to the camp every year. The family has honored this part of his camp plan. Last year, they added NASCAR simulators and pit stops for kids. This year, they added a gym in honor of NASCAR driver Michael Waltrip and also added computers," Old said.
Olds was the most experienced of the Catawba camp staff members this summer. He had the opportunity to be a part of the start-up crew when the camp first opened two years ago.
"The first year, the camp was not fully completed. Soon after I arrived, I jumped right in with Richard, Kyle and others and helped with the construction of the camp. The Pettys are really down-to-earth, family-oriented people," Olds explained.
Olds, who is also a member of the Catawba football team, explained that he was first introduced to the camp on campus. "Victory Junction came to Catawba and was recruiting students to work. It caught my eyes right away, because I have a joy for working with kids. The past two summers are something I will never forget."
Olds also said that he had one purpose for working at the camp initially and then as a return counselor. "I was definitely not there for the money; I was there for the kids. As a sports management major, I also learned a lot of medical things that I did not know before and that I will take with me the rest of my life."
While recruiting students to work this past summer was not on his list of official duties with Victory Junction, Olds convinced Sherri Hill that camp was the place to be. So, she signed up to spend her summer at Victory Junction too.
Leaving her comfort zone, Hill explained her experience at Victory Junction this past summer as a challenge, but worth the personal effort and emotional investment.
"I cried the last day I was there. You leave a part of yourself when you leave the camp, and you learn more from the kids than we could ever teach them," said Hill.
Working as a program counselor, Hill had the opportunity to interact with children in the woodshop area.
"As the supervisor of the wood shop, I helped create and come up with ideas for crafts every day. For Hollywood week, we made stars out of wood," said Hill. Some of the stars were used for awards to thank friends and family members. For instance, one child painted "Best Mom" on her star. One week, campers made ships and then sailed the boats in the water to see if they would float. Campers also made wooden animals, birds, dogs, and cats.
Hill noted that one of the camp’s top priorities was to make sure that every kid, no matter their condition, was able to participate. "We had special devices and holsters so that even children in wheelchairs could participate in activities," Hill explained. "The camp offered archery, horseback riding, boat and fishing, adventure climbing tower, arts and crafts and a water park."
Hill said that she learned several life lessons that she will take with her into the "real world." First, she discovered that, "You have to learn to get along with others for the sake of the job." She also learned "the importance of professionalism. Every day we had to make sure and be on top of our game, because we never knew when a TV crew might pop in."
Communication arts major Hilah Teague decided to give camp a try too, but with different duties. She applied for and was invited to be the camp photojournalist.
"When I first moved into the camp, I drove up to the gates and it looked like I was going to a mansion," said Teague. She was not the only one to be blown away by Victory Junction. "There was a parent that said she had just taken her child to Disney World the week before and that her kid talked more about Victory Junction than about Disney world," noted Teague.
As the photography program counselor for camp, Teague stayed busy from sunup to sundown. She would take photos all week and then would put together a slideshow of various pictures of the kids. She was then in charge of coordinating and presenting the program to the full camp on Stage Day. "Hearing the reactions and seeing the emotions on the kids’ faces while showing the slideshow each week was rewarding in itself," said Teague.
There were days when working at camp was exhausting. It was difficult to manage all the duties, so Teague learned a lot about time management. She also learned that even though she was a strong photographer, there were ways to improve. "I learned to take criticism to help with improving my work as a photographer," said Teague.
Teague noted that even though her days were jam-packed with activities and though she was often hot and bone tired, she understood the importance of being a part of the camp program. "I was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy when I was four years old, and at age eight, the doctor declared it was in remission. I was also diagnosed with diabetes so I could relate to the children very easily," Teague said.
Teague said that working at camp helped her put life into perspective. "Some of these kids
come into the camp knowing that they may have six months to live, and they were still so full of life. That helped me to appreciate my life."