Special Love’s annual Camp Fantastic adventure, held at the Northern Virginia 4-H Center in Front Royal for more than 100 children who had fought or are fighting cancer, celebrated its 30th anniversary this year — and its strong connection to Rappahannock County continues.
Tuesday is always “Rappahannock Night,” and last week almost two dozen county residents prepared to serve dinner with a helping of fun to the campers, aged 7 to 17.
Tuesday night is also “Bonkers Night,” when everybody dresses up in silly clothes. That meant the record 110 campers – plus the physicians, nurses, counselors and camp volunteers – would all wear loud colors and outlandish headgear. Most of the campers came from the Washington area, but one boy had traveled all the way from Minnesota. Some of the campers were accompanied by a team of physicians, while others had completed their treatment.
The kid-approved menu never varies: tacos, fried chicken, pizza, macaroni and cheese, quiche, corn on the cob, salad, fruit and cookies. It’s simple fare but each item has a story. Lions Club member Liz Blubaugh cooked 37 pounds of hamburger for the tacos. The Lions also purchased 240 pieces of fried chicken from the Colonel, while the Griffin Tavern and the Melting Pot donated 22 pizzas. Meanwhile, Makela and Sandra Jenkins prepared more than two dozen “blue boxes” of macaroni and cheese.
“Oh, we tried homemade macaroni and cheese one year, but the kids were quite clear that they preferred the box stuff. We never made that mistake again,” laughed volunteer Jan Makela.
The Inn at Little Washington donated several quiches, and the Country Cafe donated fruit. Muskrat Haven Farm donated the corn, while members of the Washington Baptist Church made the homemade cookies.
While the dinner was being assembled, the picnic pavilion was decorated with pennants, hung by the Lions Club “Sperryville gang” – Mike Leake, Gary Settle and Greg Williams. Donna Brune of Persimmon Springs Designs in Flint Hill placed toy-festooned floral arrangements on each gaily decorated picnic table. Next to the cotton-candy machine, Sheriff Connie Smith and Lt. Janie Phillips supervised Lt. Roger Jenkins as he did a pre-flight check on the snow cone machine. In a corner, Thick and Thin, a new Front Royal band assembled for the occasion, warmed up.
Soon it was time to place the food on the serving table and report to one’s assignment. As the gaily dressed children passed through the line and the band began to play rock favorites of past decades, something magical began to happen. Was it the box macaroni and cheese or the strains of “Mustang Sally” that got the Sperryville gang dancing like backup singers? It wasn’t long before a conga line wove through the tables, lead by a physician wearing a stuffed teapot hat topped by a fish that leaped with every movement.
So this is the magic that every volunteer talked about – that moment when those offering fun have fun, when those offering help are inspired. “For the Lions, it is the ‘feel-good’ event we do each year. This is my fourth year volunteering, and you always come away feeling that you’ve done something worthwhile,” Jim Manwaring said.
Four years at Rappahannock Night at Camp Fantastic makes him novice among volunteers who count their involvement in decades. His wife Carolyn brought her daughter’s Girl Scout troop to the event almost 30 years ago. Makela has been on the six-member organizing committee for 20 years. Brune has been donating flowers for over 20 years. Drink-pourer Kathryn Gangel has been helping for a decade and wouldn’t miss the event for anything.
What keeps them coming back? The volunteers talked about the deep impression made on them by the children. “After you help the kids have fun, you go home and think and put things in perspective,” remarked Sheriff Smith soberly. Jim Blubaugh was running for Congress several years ago when he visited the camp during the campaign. He was so touched by what he saw that he joined the Lions Club and has spearheaded the group’s involvement every since.
As Thick and Thin continued to play, a brown-haired boy in a wheelchair picked up a drum stick and began to keep time on one of band member Mike McClung’s drums. For Chuck Ritenour, the band’s leader and a Rappahannock Night volunteer for a decade, the child reminded him of another boy in a wheelchair whose memory still haunts him.
“The little guy had a drum lesson that morning at camp and then played with the band that night. He said it was the best day of his life. He died a few months later, and I still think about him,” Ritenour said.