Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Every morning the kids at Torino Ranch start camp with a dance.
On the first day, most of the campers stand off to the side to watch the counselors and a few peers follow the moves of the “Cupid Shuffle” and wiggle to the “Wobble” song. The counselors expect this. Many of the campers are used to observing from the outside, where they can hide from kids who might tease them for being different.
But on Aug. 17 — the third day of camp — music and laughter flood the campground. Every kid and counselor is shuffling and shimmying to the grooves of the music until they are out of breath.
Another day is underway at Torino Ranch, an idyllic utopia nestled on the backside of Mount Charleston along Lovell Canyon Road. It’s a place where desert brush and Joshua trees are replaced with grass, flowers, trees and a lake, and first names are replaced by chosen nicknames. It’s a place of summer crushes and water pranks.
Here, the stigmas and barriers of everyday life are peeled back allowing children dealing with critical illnesses, disabilities or life-altering issues to enter a different world.
“They come here and there is no pretense, no expectations,” Kari “Care Bear” Tillman, executive director of the Torino Foundation, said. “They can just come and do their best. They’re not being judged.”
The Torino Foundation has been running summer camps here since 1999. This year they’ve hosted camps for children with autism and overcoming abuse in the Shade Tree program. Every camp is free to participants.
This weekend’s camp is to help children at risk of heart disease and obesity in the Children’s Heart Center Nevada program. It’s a serious issue in Las Vegas, where nearly one-third of kindergartners are overweight.
Camp Heart & Sole is the last camp of the season, and this day is the last full day before the children go home and back to reality.
The green team starts its day at the iPad station, where they have been putting together an anti-bully public service announcement.
On the way there, they chat about the previous night’s snipe hunt, bragging that they knew it was fake all along even though most had been screaming with everyone else.
There are 43 kids in the camp separated into three different teams based on age. The green team is the oldest team with kids ranging from 12 to 15 years old.
Today, they are filming their message. Everyone has a role in the film. Twinkle Monster (Jonnathan Moncleano) shouts, “Quiet on the set,” and cues Beat Box (Garret Watson).
Beat Box uses his voice to lay the beat as camp members step in front of the camera to say their lines.
The message is personal for many of the kids, Tillman said. Many of them were bullies or had been bullied, Tillman said.
Bunny (Stephanie Diaz), 15, knew what it was like to be bullied. Kids picked on her simply because she wore glasses and was overweight, she said. Working on the video has given her confidence. When she leaves camp, she said she wants to speak up for anyone she sees being bullied.
Every activity at Torino Ranch fosters a sense of teamwork and positive reinforcement, but it also focuses on special issues facing the children it is hosting.
Tillman said they have specialists who come before each camp to help them cater the programs to each visiting group.
For this camp, they make sure the kids are always moving, although that isn’t hard. Water fights, swimming, slip-and-slides and snipe hunts keep the kids exercising without them even knowing it.
They also feed the campers a high-protein, healthier-carbohydrate diet, and teach them about how they could eat healthier even if their parents are taking them to McDonald’s.
“We really try to make them understand that more doesn’t always mean good,” Tillman said. “Sometimes it's just making better choices and understanding that childhood obesity is something they can really work on in spite of whatever their home life is.”
Later, the green team moves to the canoe and rock wall station, where volunteer Amy Sondej is there, gently coaxing them to participate in activities that might be out of their comfort zone.
“This camp really helps kids loosen up and try new things,” L3gion (Byron Hegwood) said. “I’m definitely coming back next year if I can.”
When she sees Beat Box sitting in the background as kids jump into canoes, she encourages him to join in the fun. Later, when a canoe tips over, she’s there stopping the kids from blaming each other and consoling one who was ready to quit.
“They are doing things here I don’t think they’ve ever done,” Sondej said. “A lot of these kids are always on the outside looking in.”
Later in the afternoon, the green team uses its downtime to play on the slip-and-slide, toss the football around and sing karaoke.
Beat Box, 14, sat on the karaoke stage providing beats for anyone who wanted it. Before he came to camp, he would have kept to himself. Kids make fun of him at school, bullying him for his size and weight.
But camp has allowed him to come out of his shell, he said. He’s also made a lot of close friends.
“It breaks down all the barriers,” Watson said. “We’re all pretty much the same here.”
There is something about the simplicity of nature, the camaraderie and traditions of camp that changes kids, Tillman said.
It has allowed them to reach hundreds of kids and make a difference in their lives in a way that just isn’t possible in the real world, she said.
“It’s really about love. I think when the kids arrive they know we’re here for the right reasons and we love them, and there’s no conditions and expectations,” Tillman said. “Just all those things you wish the real world was.”
And once they have them dancing, they know they’ve reached another kid.