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Painted Turtle’s happy campers

Fundraiser: Fabulous 1950s beach theme celebrates the Painted Turtle Camp in Lake Hughes for childre

Posted: August 4, 2010 4:04 p.m.
Updated: August 5, 2010 4:55 a.m.

From left, event chair Nicholas Holden, Wes Tanaka of Southern California Edison and advisory board members Denise Henderson and Chris Chegwin at the sixth annual Turtle Beach Bar-B-Q for the Painted Turtle Camp in Lake Hughes.

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There was a cheerful camp spirit among the nearly 300 people from the Antelope and Santa Clarita valleys who drove up to Lake Hughes for the “Turtle Beach Bar-B-Q” to benefit the Painted Turtle Camp.

Sponsored by the North L.A. County Regional Advisory Board for the Painted Turtle, the sixth annual event featured live and silent auctions, vintage cars, casino games and a wine tasting.

The bucolic setting offered guests the chance to tour the grounds with its tree-lined lake, wooden cabins and state-of-the art Well Shell medical facility — all designed to evoke a traditional, 1950s Adirondacks-style camp for children with disabling health issues

Through week-long summer sessions and year-round family programs, the camp provides a life-changing environment for nearly 2,000 children with chronic and life-threatening illnesses.

For the campers themselves, they get a week of activities, including a full array of traditional summer-camp fun, including boating, fishing, horseback riding, archery, arts and crafts and woodshop.

“Campers become more confident and self-reliant under the supervision of some of California’s top medical professionals and specialists,” said Michael House, CEO of the Painted Turtle.

Likewise, for the many people who visit the camp and see the programs, it usually takes only one visit to turn them into dedicated supporters or volunteers.

“The whole concept of having an obstacle course designed specifically for kids in wheelchairs, that is what got me hooked on supporting the camp,” said Chris Chegwin, Painted Turtle board member. “These kids can’t just go to any camp.”

For this year’s “back to camp” theme party, volunteers wore shorts and Painted Turtle T-shirts as the guests went casual in Hawaiian shirts, shorts and sandals to enjoy the lake view.

Following a tour of the grounds, guests enjoyed appetizers and cocktails in the glow of sunset on the terrace, then headed into the enormous dining hall to feast on freshly barbecued chicken, tri tip, corn the cob, fresh roasted potatoes, salad and a heavenly coleslaw.

And just like real campers, after dinner everyone was eager to get their hands on the huge array of luscious and delightful gourmet cupcakes donated by Double D Cupcakes in Lancaster.

Holly Solberg, who lives in Geneva, Switzerland, was in town visiting her mother, Dorothy Solberg, and decided to attend the event.

“Not a lot of people vacation in Palmdale or Lake Hughes, unless it is to attend the Painted Turtle fundraiser,” she said. “This is the big event in Lake Hughes.”

“It’s a beautiful evening and a lovely turnout,” said her mother, Dorothy, who is a member of the Lakes Women’s Club.

Members of the club volunteer to cook, clean rooms and sew the quilts and turtle pillows each child receives when they arrive at camp.

Live/silent auctions
While Hit Machine played classic rock ‘n’ roll tunes, guests perused the silent auction items including designer sunglasses, vintage wines, vacation packages and Sea World tickets (a major sponsor). Some of the high-end items offered were lunches with Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris and Palmdale Mayor James Ledford.

Other silent auction offerings included a flying session donated by the Southern California Soaring Academy, a football autographed by the Miami Dolphins and a tour of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department emergency vehicle operations center.

Sherry Lasagna donated a lovely cubic zirconium necklace; Denise Henderson, a member of the advisory board from the SCV, donated pearl and Austrian crystal jewelry.

After the silent auction closed — and as a glorious full moon rose over the lake — guests headed inside the dining hall to bid on live auction items.

AV Advisory Board members Wendy Williams of Time Warner Channel 3 and attorney Richard Curtin stepped up to play auctioneers for a dozen unique items — including a Los Angeles County Fire Department helicopter ride, a billboard ad donated by Lamar Advertising, a romantic stay at a Lake Tahoe condo and a gourmet dinner for six at the Lemon Leaf Café.

After the auction, where most of the haggling took place over cases of vintage wine, guests gathered around the tables and raised the stakes at craps, poker and blackjack before gathering up their auction items and heading out into the balmy
summer evening.

One of the big winners of the evening was Holly Smith, an RN at Kaiser Permanente in Lancaster.

As luck would have it, Smith won both the door prize and key prize — a diamond and emerald ring with a matching necklace.

“I never win anything,” she laughed, who admitted she really didn’t know the Painted Turtle before that night. “I thought it was just an ordinary camp. Now, I might volunteer and tell my fellow nurses about it, too.”

Love and sponsors
“We love how the Antelope Valley has embraced the Painted Turtle,” said Denise Henderson, who is on the board of the Painted Turtle and the Palmdale Cultural Center.

She gave much credit to Nicholas Holden of the Regional Advisory Board for putting the evening together in such a spectacular fashion.

“Nicholas has done a bang up job of organizing this event,” she said.

Henderson also took time to praise Wes Tanaka, the newly retired director at Southern California Edison in Rosemead, who had a long drive to Lake Hughes to attend this year’s event.

“Wes has brought more money in from Edison and they never wavered in their support,” Henderson said. “They are always at or above the $5,000 level.”

The spirit of camp
“The camp has been amazing, the kids are having a blast,” said Amanda Johnson, the annual giving manager for the Painted Turtle, who was selling camp T-shirts and water bottles. “Unfortunately, with the economy affecting the endowment, it is now twice as hard to raise funds to keep the camp free for kids, but we will never charge, that is our philosophy.”

Johnson said the Painted Turtle is determined to spread the word throughout California about the benefits of the camp.

She said many outreach programs are in place, and support grows larger each year from private and corporate sponsors and many sponsors.

“Two years ago, we brought the spirit of camp to UCLA and to Children’s Hospital in L.A.,” said Michael House. “The task of the camp is to provide a safe and supervised environment for each child regardless of their medical condition.”

Painted Turtle Camp
The Painted Turtle is the only multidisease medical camp of its kind in California. The camp is part of Hole in the Wall Camps founded by actor Paul Newman. 

Despite its endowment, each camp is responsible for its own fundraising and The Painted Turtle relies on the contributions of individuals, corporations and foundations to support the annual operating budget of nearly $4 million.

Johnson said the cost for a child’s week at camp is free.

“All — 100 percent — of the money raised at the annual fundraisers goes directly to the operation of each specific camp, and not to a national organization,” Johnson said. “The camp now serves nearly 2,000 children each year from throughout California and a few from out of state, with the majority from the greater Los Angeles area, and the Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys.”

The camp concept is now so successful that in addition to the camps Connecticut, New York, Florida, North Carolina and soon in Washington and Arizona, camps are opening up in Ireland, France, England, Hungary, Africa and Israel.

“With the recession, we must thank our volunteers,” said Michael House, CEO of the Painted Turtle. “We are grateful to be in Lake Hughes, as we really found our supporters who stayed with us through the recession.”

Of course, it wouldn’t be a proper visit to camp without a visit with Dennis “Pops” Immel and his wife, Sherry Immel, of Lake Hughes, who are universally regarded as The Painted Turtle super volunteers.

In his signature white cowboy hat, “Pops” gives camp tours and runs the rope course and wood shop, among many other things. Sherry volunteers hundreds of hours taking photos of campers and their families on Family Day.

“It is the most rewarding and passionate thing we have ever done,” Dennis Immel said. “It has completely changed our lives and reset our priorities.”

“We are here every weekend,” Sherry Immel said. “It’s a great year, we have summer staffers from other countries including Scotland, England and Canada who come specifically to spend time with the kids.”

Other volunteers have also drawn to the camp from the beginning.  “I love the vision of the camp — I was very excited about the concept,” said Anya Beswick, a music and special education teacher at the Hughes Elizabeth Lake Elementary School and also a member of the Lakes Women’s Club. “I watched it being born and helped plant some of the very first trees.”

The camp was founded in Lake Hughes in 2002.

But perhaps there in none more dedicated to the camp than Toni Weber, the official Painted Turtle driver. Perpetually cheerful, Weber drives children, families, doctors, nurses and volunteers to and from the airport and makes any other runs deemed necessary — night and day.

Having just won a $100 Shell gas card from the raffle and sporting brand new rainbow VANS for the summer, she enjoyed the evening with her mother, Savala Bradford.

“I just love it here,” Weber said. “The theme this year is ‘It’s a Wonderful World,’ and that is exactly what we want to make it — a wonderful world for the kids.”

Her mother agreed. She said having suffered plenty of health problems in their family, she can fully appreciate value of such a special camp and the effects it has on the children who attend.

“They are so alive when they are here,” Bradford said. “They are kids just like everyone else and really at their healthiest point when they are here.”

For more information about The Painted Turtle or volunteer opportunities visit


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