Kids love summer camp. But for children with chronic medical conditions such as heart disease or cancer, spending a week jumping off the high-dive into a swimming pool, riding horses or scaling a rope can be an out-of-reach dream—until they attend Victory Junction Gang Camp in Randleman, N.C. (pop. 3,653).
Victory Junction was founded in 2004 by NASCAR driver Kyle Petty and his wife, Pattie, in memory of their son Adam, an up-and-coming racer who was killed at age 19 during a practice run at New Hampshire International Speedway in 2000.
“Adam would have been really proud of this place,” says Kyle, who lives in nearby Thomasville, N.C. (pop. 19,778).
The camp, located on 72 wooded acres donated by Kyle’s father, NASCAR legend Richard Petty, is a whimsical, race-themed fantasyland. But more importantly, it’s a medically safe, supervised environment where special-needs kids ages 7 to 15 can come and have a blast.
Never saying ‘No’
“The biggest thing about camp is never to say no,” Kyle says. “No matter what disease a child has, we don’t want to say, ‘No you can’t climb the ropes or shoot a basketball or come on stage with your talent.’ Our goal is to make things happen.”
Victory Junction hosts 10 weeklong summer sessions every year, organized and customized for kids in 24 disease groups, such as cystic fibrosis or arthritis. Children who fit into one of these groups, and whose illness prohibits them from visiting other camps, are welcome to apply to Victory Junction. The facility is equipped with staff and medical personnel to accommodate up to 125 campers at a time.
Grouping campers by condition helps the medical staff be better prepared and gives campers the opportunity to be with other kids similar to them. “A sick child often feels like an island,” says Pattie, Victory Junction’s CEO. “She may be the only one in her church or school with hemophilia. It helps the child and her family to see others with the same condition.”
Once the campers pass the three-stories-tall, rainbow-colored Victory Junction water tower and travel through a lighted passageway resembling a NASCAR infield tunnel, it doesn’t take long for them to catch camp fever.
Upon arrival, campers drop off their bags in one of 16 plush cabins, each named for a different NASCAR speedway (such as Talladega or Daytona) and furnished with racecar beds, gas-pump nightstands and hand-stitched Victory Junction quilts, along with donated teddy bears and afghans that campers get to keep.
Campers want to stay
Last summer, three cabin mates met the first day of heart and kidney week and immediately made a beeline for the wheelchair-accessible water park where they went tubing in the lazy river, climbed the motorcycle-shaped slide inspired by Kyle Petty’s annual Charity Ride Across America and waded into the temperature-controlled water, which is essential for kids with conditions such as sickle-cell anemia.
“I loved it!” says Will Kwapil, 12, of Greensboro, N.C., who resembles a miniature John Denver with his bowl haircut and oval glasses. His camp counselors affectionately nicknamed him “Cheese” because he was born in Wisconsin.
“Cheese spent the first year and a half of his life in ICU,” says Tom Kwapil, Will’s father. “He’s had about 25 surgeries and has scars all over him. Some places he’s been teased. But here, everybody’s like him and he’s here to have fun. This place, the staff and the Pettys are amazing.” The parents of the 4,500-some campers who have visited Victory Junction since it opened agree. But as Kwapil points out, some campers have never spent the night anywhere outside the home except for the hospital, so many parents initially are apprehensive when they drop off their children at camp.
“When I first brought my daughter here, I was a wreck,” says Tracy Lee, of Burlington, N.C. (pop. 47,592). “I kept thinking, ‘What if she needs me?’”
At the end of the week, when she picked up 12-year-old Maddie, who has cerebral palsy, Tracy was troubled to find her sobbing.
“I thought, ‘Oh no!’” Tracy recalls. “But she was crying because she didn’t want to leave.” Indeed, last summer Maddie achieved something she never dreamed possible. With the encouragement of her counselors and a little help from some ropes and pullies, she climbed halfway up the 50-foot alpine tower on the adventure course.
“I felt like I conquered my cerebral palsy when I did that,” Maddie says, bursting into an enormous grin.
Fulfilling Adam’s dream
When Kyle Petty sees the joy on the faces of campers such as Maddie and Cheese, he always is reminded of his son. “If they’ve got that Adam Petty smile on their face, I know he’s still here with us,” he says.
The Pettys are NASCAR’s most famous family. Adam’s great-grandfather Lee won the first Daytona 500 in 1959. Then came his son Richard, who won 200 races and seven Winston Cup championships during his career. Kyle followed him, and continues to race after more than 20 years of competition. In 1998, Adam made his professional debut and by the following year he was already a rising star in the Busch racing series.
Between races, Adam often visited sick kids in hospitals with his father and grandfather. Then, after a memorable trip to Boggy Creek Gang Camp in Eustis, Fla., which also is a camp for chronically ill children, he became inspired.
“He was the one who was so passionate about building something for kids where they could come for free and do the things people told them they could never do,” says Pattie, who joined with her husband to help Adam realize his dream project.
Then came the tragic accident. All the work the Pettys had done for more than a year, including contacting potential sponsors and staff, came to an abrupt halt. Dollars from Adam’s racing sponsors—envisioned as a source of seed money for the camp’s startup—were gone.
“It was really difficult,” Pattie says. “I was ready to let it go.”
Inspired by Adam’s passion, supporters stepped in to keep the dream of Victory Junction alive. The first was “The King” himself, Richard Petty, who donated the land, adjacent to the home where Kyle grew up and where Richard lives today.
Next came the generosity of other NASCAR drivers, their sponsors and fans, which continues to this day.
“Jimmie Johnson, whose foundation built a new bowling alley at camp this year, grew up racing with Adam,” Kyle says. “Tony Stewart, Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte—they all knew him since he was knee-high, coming to the track. They’ve been incredible.”
Every time a NASCAR driver hits the track, he has one goal: to win the race. At Victory Junction, everybody wins—the drivers who visit the kids, the donors who know their money is being spent for a great cause, the 45 year-round staff members, 75 summer counselors, dozens of seasonal volunteers and, of course, the campers. They all take a lap around the winner’s circle just by visiting this magical place.
“When they leave here, these children are happy, well-adjusted and ready to take on another 51 weeks out of the year,” Pattie says. “That’s what it’s all about.”