By Alysson Aredasaaredas@turlockjournal.com
POSTED February 7, 2017 7:30 p.m

For 12-year-old Justice Van Dyke, Camp Taylor isn’t just a place for children with heart disease such as herself to spend the summer. It’s a feeling of belonging.

“Everyone feels involved,” said Van Dyke. “When you’re in a place like Camp Taylor, you’re not the only one with that condition and feel left out. When you’re at Camp Taylor, no one is left out.”

Van Dyke, who lives in Turlock with her grandmother Kimberley Pascoal and attends Dutcher Middle School, was born with a condition called hypoplastic left heart syndrome, which develops during pregnancy when the left side of the heart does not form correctly. The birth defect affects a number of structures on the left side of the heart, impacting normal blood flow. As a result, Van Dyke has had three open heart surgeries, beginning when she was just two weeks old.

“It wasn’t going to be a permanent fix,” said Pascoal. “Those were just to sustain life.”

Last year, Van Dyke got involved with Camp Taylor, which is a free medically-supervised camp for children with heart disease. The camp — which is named after founder and executive director Kimberlie Gamino’s son Taylor Gamino, who was born with hypoplastic right heart syndrome — has offered several activities for children with heart disease, including swimming, snorkeling, horseback riding, rock-wall climbing, archery and heart education since its inception in 2002.

“At school, they’re surrounded by children who can run on the playground or kick a soccer ball across the field and not get tired,” said Gamino. “At Camp Taylor, they get to hang out with kids who don’t think they are out of shape because they get out of breath walking up a hill or lazy because they aren’t running at PE time. They aren’t teased because they have a scar.

“Here, they feel comfortable in their own skin. At Camp Taylor, every kid has a place to fit in,” continued Gamino.

As the only camp of its kind in Northern and Central California that helps children suffering from congenital heart disease, Camp Taylor will be hosting its 15th annual Valentine Hearts dinner and auction this Saturday in Modesto.

“We always want to create greater awareness by sharing our stories and raising the money we need to help more children,” said Gamino. “We don’t receive any government funding. We are solely supported by local people, community grants and a couple corporate sponsors. We raise the money and we run the programs ourselves.

“It means a lot for the kids who attend this event to see the community come out and support them,” added Gamino.

Gamino said that this year’s camp is expected to accommodate 605 children, both locally and throughout the United States. She said that 90 percent of the children at Camp Taylor come from California, with 45 percent from Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties.

This year’s Valentine Hearts dinner and auction will include special guest speaker TJ Carrie of the Oakland Raiders. During his freshman year of high school, Carrie passed out on the field and later discovered his coronary artery grew between his lungs, causing the artery to constrict when his lungs expanded. A year later, Carrie underwent open heart surgery to correct his coronary valve.

“TJ reached out to us and loved what we represent and what we do because of his own battle with heart disease and his hospitalization,” said Gamino. “He knows what these kids endure and he wanted to do what he could to help them along in life too.”

Gamino said this year has been tough for Camp Taylor as the rate of ticket sales for the Valentine Hearts dinner and auction has decreased, while the number of children who need services has increased.

“It’s been a very difficult year because we have so many of our children are in fragile or critical conditions right now,” said Gamino. “We have a lot of children in Turlock, Modesto and Ripon that are fighting for their lives.”

This year’s Valentine Hearts dinner and auction will also be the last, according to Gamino, who said that the camp will transition to hosting Growing Hearts at the camp’s new site that was purchased in 2014. Gamino said that they hope to start hosting Growing Hearts as early as the end of this year, with a goal to have the site up and running to welcome campers by next summer.

The 15th annual Valentine Hearts dinner and auction will take place at 6 p.m. Saturday at the DoubleTree Hotel, located at 1150 9th Street in Modesto. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit kidsheartcamp.org/valentinehearts.