TURLOCK — For the kids at Camp Taylor, the measure of a human heart is not how well it beats, but how well it lives.
The camp for children with heart disease moved to Turlock this summer for the first time since its inception in 2003. This week, 80 campers in the youth program converged on the California State University, Stanislaus, campus to take part in five days of old-fashioned fun with some cutting-edge assistance.
The Salida-based nonprofit organization had been holding its summer camps — for children and teenagers — in the hills of Livermore. But the site cut back its availability, so in an effort to continue to grow and not turn kids away, Camp Taylor founder Kimberlie Gamino sought out a new home. She found the university, which is welcoming the youth to its grounds and dorms.
"It was either turn kids away or cut down on our days," Gamino said. "In Livermore or Turlock, it's still Camp Taylor all the way. Camp isn't about the shell, it's about the people and the programs."
The campers in the youth program, ages 7 to 12, have heart conditions that in most cases need more letters than their ages — such as cardiac pacemakers, aortic stenosis and hypoplastic left heart syndrome. But while at camp, they are able to do crafts, sing songs, perform skits, play games and do other physical activities with kids who have the same conditions. And it's all done under careful medical supervision from pediatric cardiologists and nurses who have volunteered their time.
For returning campers such as Hannah French, the move hasn't changed what the camp means to her. The 8-year-old from Fresno said she couldn't wait to come back. "It feels like I have two families," she said. "Home and camp."
Gamino said building friendships and creating normalcy is what the camp is all about. The program was inspired by and named after Gamino's son and his struggle with congenital heart disease. Gamino said she has seen kids start to open up and shine in the environment where having a scar is the norm instead of the oddity.
That includes campers such as Riley Higdon, 8, who is back for her second year. "It's good here because I can actually meet people who are like me," said the Placerville resident. "At school, there's no one like me."
At camp, kids are able to take part in things they might not at school or home: water slides, rock walls, foot races and more.
"The more I heard about the camp, the more I got excited," said Pleasanton resident Kayla Safdari, 9, a first-time camper. "Back home, I can't do stuff, but here I can."
What started out 11 years ago as a one-week camp for children of all ages with about 50 campers has since grown to youth, teen and family sleepover camps that bring together hundreds of people from all over Northern California and across the country.
Since the beginning, the camp has had medical professionals on staff. This summer, the camp has three doctors, nine nurses and two paramedics, along with28 counselors — all of whom volunteered their time. The camp's medical director from the start has been Kavin Desai, a pediatric cardiologist for Kaiser Permanente and Stanford, who was Taylor Gamino's doctor.
Heart education is part of the camp as well, to help the campers deal with their diseases, now and in the future.
"It's really critical for these kids to understand their place in society," Desai said. "So the heart education component is so important."
Everything is free for the campers and their families, thanks to donations and in-kind services. Gamino said each five-day session costs about $80,000 to put on. The camp has made headlines recently, thanks to the support of one of its famous backers. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began backing the camp shortly after he was drafted into the NFL.
Since his star has risen, so has the spotlight on one of his favorite charities. Last month, he appeared at the Camp Taylor and Colin Kaepernick "Against All Odds" Golf Tournament at Del Rio Country Club in Modesto, which raised more than $200,000 for the group.
Gamino said the exposure has helped raise awareness, as well as increased donations and interest from families with children with heart conditions.
The hope is for Camp Taylor to obtain a property in Modesto where it can permanently house its camp and programs, Gamino said. And that would be perfectly fine with many of the campers.
"It's so fun," said 8-year-old Audrey Larnerd of San Jose. "I wish I lived here."