When Tom Evans, 68, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2005, he met many children in the hospital fighting a similar battle.
After overcoming his illness, Tom knew he needed to do something to help the young ones suffering from cancer.
“I went to radiation for 14 weeks, so you would see a lot of these kids in there every day and they were just really special people,” Tom tells PEOPLE. “They had a zest for life and no matter how tough things were, I was just awestruck by how positive they were, and I always felt like surviving cancer was about 70 percent mental and 30 percent medical, and these kids were just great examples of that. They just had this will to live and they were inspiring to me, so we needed to find a way to help these guys out.”
In 2012, the Colorado native and oil field contractor opened Nighthawk Ranch – a summer camp on a working ranch in Guffey, Colorado.
The 320-acre ranch offers four one-week-long sessions for six kids ages 10 to 18 living with cancer or in post-treatment. The sessions, which are 100 percent free to participants, start at the beginning of summer, alternating boys one week and girls the next.
[IMAGE “5” “” “std” ]Tom and his wife Dorothy, 67, fund the camp themselves with some help from small fundraising efforts and donations. And Angel Flight Central helps fly campers in from all over the country.
Staff at the working ranch have the children up at 6 a.m. for a full day of activities, including horseback riding, log cabin building, tight ropes courses, feeding and herding animals, bon fires and squirt gun fights.
Dorothy, 67, tells PEOPLE that when the kids are in nature, it helps them “slow down a little bit.”
Tom adds, “They see deer and elk, so a ton of wildlife, and then their interaction with the horses and all the other critters around here – it’s just therapeutic. It helps them. It gets their mind off their problems and lets them know there s something else out there.”
Tom says a big part of the camp is reminding the children they can do anything they set their minds to.
“We have all these crazy activities we do to try to foster that attitude and to build self-esteem and to prove to these kids that they can do anything, so we make them do lots of physical things during the week,” he says. “Our kids all share that positive attitude, that zest for life, but there are a wide variety of conditions.
“We deal a lot with the physical side effects of the toxins, the drugs. We ve got kids that have lost eyesight in one eye, that have balance problems, hearing problems, joint problems, all kind of maladies, but it doesn t dampen their attitude.”
The ranch is equipped with full life support, EMS, nurses and counselors. They’ve also teamed up with Fight For Life and a Penrose Helicopter that can fly to the ranch in just 20 minutes to give medical attention.
Justin Dunn, head of the mustang (equine) therapy program, tells PEOPLE each child is paired with a trained wild mustang for the week to help them build confidence.
“I’ll explain how we take care of the horses and answer any questions they may have, then I ask if any of them have ridden horses before, some of them have, some of them haven’t,” Dunn, 39, says.
“I explain how the horses were wild and were captured and brought into our society and what we expect from them and what they expects from us. I watch their reactions and how they look at the horses and gain their confidence level, then I can pair them up pretty quickly,” he shares. “We allow them to groom the horse, brush their hair – all the girls want to braid their hair – and they get acquainted and they allow their energies to sync up.”
“These horses do a therapeutic job beyond the fun activity of riding a horse. It changes the kids’ lives for the better,” he adds.
Not only are the horses a source of emotional support, but the children also have each other to lean on.
Tom says the ranch allows for the children to have their own bunkhouses, so they’re also bonding together in their rooms.
“They support each other, they pump each other up, they share stories, they re very supportive emotionally to each other, so they bond quickly. By the end of the week, they re brothers, they re sisters. They ll stay in touch via email forever,” Tom says.
Dorothy adds, “It’s empowering to see.”
Dean Rogers, 19, first attended the camp when he was 15 while recovering from Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He is now a camp counselor.
He tells PEOPLE he noticed a dramatic change in his mood while attending camp.
“I was a lot more at peace. I was a lot happier. I laughed a lot more. I think that the camp really helped me to relax and get rid of a lot of stress that I had at the time and it still does that,” he says.
Rogers says Tom and Dorothy were a big part of that stress relief for him.
“They are so kind and so generous with everything they have,” he adds. “They feel a lot like grandparents – they are amazing people.”
The positive effects of the camp are just as strong for Tom and Dorothy.
“We feel great about it,” Tom says. “We go above and beyond to try to put everybody at ease. We get such positive comments, and we re really blessed to be doing this.
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