Some of the campers at this year’s Camp Mend-a-Heart enjoy riding horses at the Alamo Rodeo arena.  For some, it was the first time ever being around a horse. (Dave Maxwell photo)

Some of the campers at this year’s Camp Mend-a-Heart enjoy riding horses at the Alamo Rodeo arena. For some, it was the first time ever being around a horse. (Dave Maxwell photo)

As has been the tradition for the past nine years, Camp Mend-a-Heart, under the direction of the Children’s Heart Foundation, held their annual summer camp the last week in June at the Rapport Executive Ranch in Alamo.

Camp Mend-a-Heart is a cost-free, medically supervised camp for children and teens living in Nevada who are born with or have developed heart problems. The Foundation established the camp in an effort to provide these children with an opportunity to participate in a variety of fun summer camp activities.

Founded in 2004, the camp has grown from an overnight stay to four days and three nights of camp fun. The kids, from all around the state, are able to forge friendships, attain hope, and create great memories of a common experience. It has been described by one camper as a “fun loving environment, surrounded by people that can relate to you, and know what your are going through.”

It is the first medically supervised camp offered to Nevada’s children with heart conditions where they can be kids, and do things in ways they may not be able to doing the school year, shift their focus from their heart condition, in addition to spending time with others who understand what it’s like to have a heart condition. Some who come have even had heart transplants.

This year the kids spent part of one day at the Alamo Rodeo Arena learning about horses. Foundation executive director Kim Colagioia of Las Vegas said, “The kids are learning a little of how to ride and about horse care, what a rodeo arena looks like, what is a barrel pattern, etc.”

The kids were each given a ride on a horse and led around the arena. Colagioia said, “For some, it’s the first time being on a horse, or even to be near one, and they are loving it. It’s something new, something different. We want to give these kids some of the same opportunities healthy kids have.”

Gracie Buckner, programs manager with Children’s Heart Foundation, said they have had horses at the camp for about four years, “but typically we have just been in the field at Rapport. We thought this year to come to the arena and ride here, walk the barrel patterns. Walking the fields is fine, but for the return campers, as well as the new ones, we’d like to do something a little bit different, a little bit more.”

Michelle and Patrick Tighe, of Las Vegas, are friends with Foundation founder Lyn Acebo, and they bring up the horses. “We have done it for four years, but this is the first time to have the kids come to the rodeo arena, as well as still doing trail rides in the meadow at Rapport. Most of the kids have never even touched a horse, so this is a big thing for them. It’s a week in their lives where they get to be regular kids, and no one is looking at them like they are a heart kid.”

Kelly Bullock, whose 12-year old son is one of the campers, is also friends with the Tighe’s, and said her son “looks forward to the camp all year long.”

One of the favorite activities for the kids is held the second day in the meadow below the main building at Rapport, called the Yuk Olympics. Acebo said, “The kids are in eight teams and participate in seven events. Things like filling a plastic Top Hat with whip cream, put it on their head and run back to their team. If the hat falls off, they have to go back and start from the beginning.”

Another event she said is bobbing for lemons, “Apples would be too easy.” The final team event of the Olympics is a run through a giant slip-and-slide and the camp counselors are lined up on either side to squirt the runner with chocolate and strawberry syrup. “We call it the Sundae Slip-and-Slide,” Acebo said. “It’s a very messy event.” Then the kids can jump in some inflatable water slides, pools, use water guns and hoses, nearby to play on and wash off.

One of the games on the popular ropes course, all administered by volunteer firefighters from the Las Vegas Fire Department, is putting on a harness, climbing a 45-foot pole to a ledge where another firefighter hooks them to a line and allows them to swing off the pole, not unlike what might be seen by the trapeze artist in the circus.

Acebo said she asked one 11-year old girl camper, “What would your mom say if she saw you jump off a 45-foot pole? She would tell me, ‘Madison, Get Down!’”

Acebo, whose own daughter has a heart condition, and was a camper in her youth, said the camp enriches the lives of the children and they begin to form positive peer relationships and develop greater independence and self-esteem.“

“It’s something magical to see,” she said, “when these heart kids start to connect at camp, their self-esteem and confidence flourish, and their faces lighten with fun.”