By Mary Anne Ehlert & David Block
In the world of NASCAR, the Petty name is held in great reverence. The family has been an integral part of NASCAR for more than half a century. Four generations of Pettys have been NASCAR champions. It began with Lee, who was followed by his son Richard, then Richard’s son Kyle and finally Kyle’s son, Adam. The Petty racing legacy is known to millions and their achievements are truly the stuff of which legends are made. While the Petty family is justifiably proud of their racing accomplishments, there is another, very different, achievement of which they are equally proud — a special camp called Victory Junction.
The camp, which is located on 84 acres in Randleman, North Carolina, hosts children suffering from 24 different chronic medical conditions and serious illnesses, including Autism, Cancer, Craniofacial Anomalies, Diabetes, Hemophilia, Sickle Cell and Spina Bifida, at no cost to their families. Victory Junction partners with thirty hospitals to deliver exceptional health care to each and every one of their special guests.
In March of 2010, Protected Tomorrows president and founder Mary Anne Ehlert had the opportunity to meet Kyle and Pattie Petty and tour Victory Junction while she was in North Carolina meeting with a group of financial advisors to discuss initiatives on planning for special needs families.
The dream that became Victory Junction began in the mid 1990’s, when Kyle and a group of friends began travelling cross-country by motorcycle every year to raise money for children’s hospitals. His wife, Pattie, would often accompany Kyle on the road. On one of these trips, the group stopped at the Boggy Creek Gang Camp in Florida, a camp which catered to terminally ill children. After their visit, it did not take long for Kyle and Pattie to decide that they, too, wanted to establish a camp of their own. When Kyle’s son, Adam, saw Boggy Creek Gang Camp for the first time, he embraced their desire, as well.
“When Adam saw it (Boggy Creek), he was like, ‘Mom, you have to do it. You’ve got to do this’”, Pattie said. Ironically, Adam’s tragic death during a NASCAR practice run in 2000 made the family’s dream a reality. “Adam was looking to buy the land for us the week before his accident,” she added.
Kyle’s desire to help others has deep roots which reach back to his childhood. “When I was younger and lived way out in the country, four of us (kids the same age) played together: Randy, Rodney, Timmy and me. Randy was mentally challenged and Timmy was physically challenged. I grew up around children who were challenged. That’s what I called it, challenged. For me, they were normal kids that want to be talked to like normal kids. They want to be treated like normal kids. There’s nothing worse in my mind when I was growing up to see someone treat Randy and Timmy different. They’re not different from other people. I carried that attitude into adulthood. It’s been part of my life since I was 5 or 6 years old.”
Kyle’s attitude toward his friends with special needs was a simple one. It never occurred to him that he was going out of his way to befriend them because they were different. “I liked them. They were my friends and we played together,” Kyle said.
After Adam’s death, many people approached the Petty family with ideas for honoring Adam’s life. “People came to us,” Kyle said. “Some said, ‘We want to build a YMCA in Charlotte and we want to call it the Adam Petty YMCA. We want to build a playground and call it the Adam Petty Playground.’” “We thought about it. Adam never went to the YMCA. He never hung out at the playground. To put his name on something he never did seemed counter-intuitive for us. We knew that he talked about the camp, so we built the camp in his honor.”
In 2004, Victory Junction hosted its first campers. The camp’s unique format focuses on a different disability each week. This unusual approach allows the campers to have a week-long experience designed specifically for them. Since its doors opened, more than 12,000 children with chronic medical conditions have acquired independence and become empowered because of their camp experiences.
At Victory Junction, the famous NASCAR Pettys take on a very different persona. “I’m just the clown at the circus,” Kyle explained. “On Carnival Night, he’s the first to get painted up and dunked in the water.” Pattie added. Likewise, at Victory Junction, Pattie transforms from her role as an influential board member who sits on numerous hospital boards to just “Pattie.” “At camp, I’m that lady who likes the barn and the horses. That’s how the kids see me.” Pattie said. One of Pattie’s favorite tasks at the camp is to take the campers horseback riding, which offers them a unique sense of freedom of movement that they typically do not have.
Victory Junction’s phenomenal success has driven plans for a second Victory Junction in Kansas, which is anticipated to be completed in the next few years. The Petty’s decision to locate the second camp in the Midwest will allow many children from that area who want to attend the North Carolina camp a closer, more viable camp option. “There are many, many children coming from the Midwest to our camp (in North Carolina) and/or applying to the camp. It’s too far for some of them to come. It’s not healthy, and it’s not cost-efficient.” Pattie explained.
Mary Anne’s visit with the Pettys was an inspirational and exhilarating experience that she will never forget. “To say I was emotionally touched by what I saw at the camp would be an understatement. Every child deserves to have fun with their peers; this provides that normal experience of fun and camp to every child who attends. What a difference the Petty’s have made!”
Victory Junction is not far from NASCAR’s victory lane, where four generations of Pettys have had the great fortune to be on numerous occasions. Both are places where life-changing experiences are celebrated with excitement and joy.
More information about Victory Junction can be found at www.victoryjunction.org.
David Block is a contributing writer for Protected Tomorrows, Inc. David is also freelance journalist and a documentary producer.