Dream Oaks Camp
Tucked beneath the shade of towering oak trees and serenaded with streams of laughter, lies a peaceful utopia where kids who use wheelchairs ride horses, children with visual impairments sweep paint brushes across masterpieces and patients with cancer swap doctor’s appointments for a canoe trip down the Manatee River.
Dream Oaks Camp, offering an exceptional camping experience for children with special needs and chronic illnesses ages 7 – 17, stretches out across several pristine acres in Manatee County and serves as the only camp in the Tampa Bay Area offering a permanent site for residential, day and weekend camping programs throughout the year for these children. Rumbling down the dirt road to the check-in center, most children can barely wait to leap out of their cars and bid farewell to their parents.
“Usually Marty has to be coaxed out of the truck when we go places,” says Daniel, a Bradenton parent. “When I pull into the camp parking lot and park, Marty is opening up the door before I shut the engine off. A smile covers his face from the time he spots the first person. When I pick him up, he’s still wearing that same smile.”
Dashing up to greet friends and loved counselors, campers can let go of school, treatment and routine at Dream Oaks, which has served more than 4,000 individuals during the 12 years it has welcomed campers. Seven barrier-free cabins dot the campus. Sunlight filters through the trees setting butterflies aglow. Low flames crackle from a firepit where the nostalgic, sweet scent of roasting marsh mellows warms the afternoon air.
The camp has blossomed as a living dream for Bradenton attorney Eddie Mulock, a triple-transplant survivor with a wicked sense of humor and a self-professed weakness for brightly-colored neckties.
Mulock could not erase the images of the children he saw battling illnesses and adversity sheltered behind hospital walls. After surviving a heart transplant in 1995, Mulock – who later underwent both kidney and liver transplants as well—wondered when these children could shut out the treatments and therapy to enjoy the carefree musings of being a kid.
His pondering bloomed into a life mission. Barely out of the hospital himself, Mulock formed in 1996 the Foundation for Dreams, a non- profit organization that funds his creation Dream Oaks Camp.
In August 2000, the Foundation for Dreams formed a collaborative partnership, which allowed the Foundation to build Dream Oaks Camp on several acres of Camp Flying Eagle, thereby utilizing existing facilities while focusing on renovating and building new facilities.
With colorful pinwheels spinning at the entrance, Mulock’s dream came true in 2001 as Dream Oaks welcomed its first summer campers, providing day camp services to 56 children.
Through summer and year-round weekend programs, Dream Oaks serves more than 600 individuals a year enjoy independence, grow a greater self-confidence, strengthen activities of daily living and life skills, engage in activities with other children in an inclusive, barrier-free environment and provide respite services to the parents and care givers. In addition, last year they provided nearly $100,000 in partial or full scholarships to families in need of financial assistance.
Dream Oaks Camp recently collaborated with The Children’s Cancer Center, The Center for Building Hope and Suncoast Kids Place out of Tampa to create two new weekend camps for families.
The “F.L.I.G.H.T” Children’s Cancer Center Family Camp is a weekend camp for children who have recently been diagnosed with cancer and “Camp Healing Heart” is a bereavement camp for families who have lost a child to cancer and are still needing support services. They are also partnering with Jewish Family Children’s Services and have added three weekend camps that serve children affected by substance abuse in the home. In addition, Dream Oaks Camp programs have expanded to include a Young Adult Camp for individuals ages 18-30 to fill the much needed gap in services.
During camp sessions, an intricate tapestry of life emerges: children embracing their carefree youth, young adult counselors growing into strong, nurturing people and parents, who often don’t get a break all year, a chance to spend time with a spouse or friends.
“Zachary has been ‘special’ since he was born,” says Leslie, a parent from Orlando. “At Dream Oaks Camp he isn’t. He’s just like every other kid. He actually becomes a leader and initiates activities instead of being a follower.”
As a camp session draws to a close, the contagious smiles from the first day roll into belly laughs flowing from the dining hall. Inside, a camper/counselor talent show plays out and kids and adults alike beam with happiness. They have played hard – riding horses, swimming in a specially designed splash pool, creating art, music and plays to name a few activities.
One camper clutches his counselor, burying his face in the counselor’s lap. He doesn’t want to leave, let the fun end.
“To me, this camp means an experience my son would not otherwise have,” says Marty’s dad Daniel. “It means a feeling of security, knowing he is cared for and watched over by good, loving people.”
By Bre Jones Mulock