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Full hearts under a full moon

The 'Hole in the Wall' gang rode into town to raise awareness of the Painted Turtle

Posted: August 20, 2008 9:46 p.m.
Updated: October 22, 2008 5:02 a.m.

Teresa James and the Rhythm Tramps entertain the crowd at TPC in Valencia during the "Hot Summer Nights" fundraiser.

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A glorious full moon rose over the hills in Valencia on Saturday as nearly 100 people from the Santa Clarita Valley gathered at the Tournament Player's Club to support the Painted Turtle Camp in Lake Hughes.

The $100 per plate gourmet buffet, blues music and cigars event was the backdrop for a lovely and relaxing evening that felt more like a party at someone's house than a fundraiser.

As guests settled into patio chairs and settees overlooking the magnificent greens of the TPC, they enjoyed the ambience of a perfect evening for a very good cause.

In fact, "Hot August Nights" certainly lived up to its reputation as renowned blues artist, Teresa James and The Rhythm Tramps played an outstanding set of original songs to end the magical evening under the stars.

And that was exactly the point: to introduce The Painted Turtle camp to the SCV on a beautiful summer night.

"What could be a better way to bring friends and funds together," said Chris Fall, a Painted Turtle advisory board member. He said the proceeds directly benefit The Painted Turtle's programs for children with serious illnesses. Fall was there with his wife, Jayne, and their invited friends, first time attendees Dan and Heather Deffenbaugh of Stevenson Ranch.

"Dan cried at the video; it breaks our hearts to think that any kid would suffer, especially from a chronic illness," Heather Deffenbaugh said. "It makes you want to go home and hug your kids and count your blessings."

The Master of Ceremonies for the evening was Fred Trueblood, president of the North Los Angeles County Regional Advisory Board, who organized the event. He urged everyone to reach into his or her hearts and send a kid to camp for a week. He said helping to bring local awareness of the camp was a labor of love.

"It's not about children from another place we don't know about," he said. "It includes children from the Santa Clarita Valley."

Mayor Bob Kellar was the auctioneer. Yet, instead of an auction, he encouraged the guests to fill out giving cards placed inside the programs.

In return, each contribution would be rewarded with a custom, hand-sewn painted turtle pillow, the same given to each camper. Judging by the number of guests who left hugging their pillows, it was obvious their generous hearts were as full as the moon that shined overhead.

Perhaps it was because of the video showing the kids at camp, participating in activities including boating, fishing and swimming. In fact, there wasn't a dry eye in the house after Dan and Janine Jones (Sheila Veloz' daughter) rose to speak of their experience raising their two daughters, Bailey and Camille, each of whom have Type I diabetes.

Janine's impassioned story detailed their trials and tribulations of around the clock insulin injections and spending 90 percent of their day worrying about their food intake.

Janine said one week at the camp transformed their daughters and convinced them to go on the insulin pump. Needless to say, she pointed out a week at camp also transformed them.

"It was the first time we could leave our daughters anywhere without fear that they might die," she said.

"When we saw the camp and learned about the skilled medical staff, we knew it was the right place for them. And for the first time, they fit in - they were no longer the ‘different' kids."

She said her teens also cherish the turtle pillow and quilts they received at camp. But the cuddly theme only highlighted the serious nature of the camps, open free of charge to any child in California and surrounding states with a qualifying condition.

Amanda Johnson, annual giving manager at The Painted Turtle, said 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 pointed out that the cost for a child's week at camp is free.

The camp serves nearly 1,500 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. She said individuals, foundations and corporations fund the annual operating budget of about $3.5 million.

"The Painted Turtle camp opened in June 2004 and is a year-round medical specialty camp for children ages 7 to 16 with chronic or life-threatening illnesses including arthritis, asthma, burns, Crohn's disease, colitis, diabetes, hemophilia, kidney disease, liver transplants, muscular dystrophy, primary immunodeficiency disease, skeletal dysplasia and spina bifida," Johnson said.

It is the only one of its kind of the West Coast and a member of the Associate of Hole in the Wall Camps founded by Paul Newman.

"This is the first time in four years of fundraising for The Painted Turtle that our event will be held here in Santa Clarita," said Kiki Hacker, a Painted Turtle Advisory Board member.

In the past the fundraisers have been held in various locations, including Shea's Castle near Lake Hughes, and at the camp itself.

"This year we wanted to make it easy and fun for local community members to attend the fundraiser.

The event will help spread the word in Santa Clarita about the very special jewel in our own back yard - The Painted Turtle camp."

Helping direct traffic at the event was Dennis "Pops" Immel. Dennis and his wife, Sherry Immel of Lake Hughes are universally regarded as The Painted Turtle super volunteers, Johnson said. But in a way, they are typical of the kind of experience volunteers have at camp.

In his signature white cowboy hat, "Pops" gives camp tours, runs the rope course and woodshop, among many other things.

Sherry Immel volunteers hundreds of hours taking photos of campers and their families on Family Day.
Eternally youthful and energetic, they have six grown children and work full time at Northrop Grumman and Lockheed, respectively.

But they admit to spending more time at their second "full-time" job where they can usually be found every weekend.

"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."

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