Camp offers outdoor fun for kids of all skill sets

Maggie Turney sat patiently with her fishing pole by the pond at Wings of Eagles Ranch, waiting for that one big catch.

Not even a nibble at first for Maggie, 8, of Concord, who has cerebral palsy and fished from her wheelchair during a summer camp for children with and without special needs.

Volunteer Phil Jackson of Cornelius walked over to inspect her pole.

"You got it upside down, Butch!" he joked to Harold "Butch" Winkler, who's volunteered at the therapeutic horseback riding center since retiring two years ago as Cabarrus County Schools superintendent.

"Let's put some more bait on her, Maggie," Jackson said, masking the brim in his other hand. "Let's just throw the line out and see if something doesn't get a bite."

"Wind it! Wind it!" he suddenly urged the girl. And when she'd reeled the line in, Winkler held it up to reveal a brim.

Jackson made sure every child caught a fish on June 16, as part of a weeklong outdoor adventure at the 88-acre ranch off Miami Church Road.

Children also rode horses and hiked in the woods. Some braved the 42-foot climbing wall and 564-foot zip line, all with trained volunteers.

Winkler also helped campers open sterilized owl pellets he'd ordered through the mail. By inspecting the bones in the pellets, they determined what the owls had eaten. "Owls can't digest all of the food, so it comes up like a fur ball in a cat," Winkler explained.

He identified birds for the campers through their calls, including the yellow-billed cuckoo and mourning warbler.

And he helped them identify tracks in the woods and make casts of coyote prints using empty soup cans and plaster of Paris.

The nonprofit ranch is in its 11th year serving children and adults with special needs, and it couldn't operate without Winkler, Jackson and dozens of other volunteers, founder Chris Cronin said. She opened the ranch after noticing how horseback riding helped her son Brendan, who is paralyzed on his left side.

Cronin leapt right in with the volunteers the morning I visited, fastening herself below George Malone, 7, of Concord as the pair scaled the wall. George was all smiles the entire way up. "You did it!" Cronin told him at the top.

Amanda Edwards Rusmisell said she loves the camp because it gives sons Bennett, 4, and Maxwell, 6, a chance to understand children who are in wheelchairs or have other special needs, like Nichole Cloke, 5, whose family moved from San Diego to Kannapolis two years ago just so Nichole could attend Wings of Eagles.

Nichole, who has autism, wouldn't let her parents or anyone else hug her before she began riding horses at the ranch., mom Jenna Cloke said.

"After her second horseback riding here last year, she was so excited she ran off the horse and told me she loved me," Jenna Cloke said.

"This has given her hope."