The unique ranch is inclusive for children with any kind of disability.
Nestled within the sleepy trees of Stave Lake near Mission lies a ranch for children that’s been transforming lives for 15 years.
To think that, at the turn of the millennium, the same property used to be a corrections facility. What would the convicts say if they saw it today?
Since 2004, Zajac Ranch for Children has steadily been growing a reputation as a truly unique facility for kids with disabilities to experience the wonders of camp. Carmen Zajac, daughter of founder Mel Zajac, has witnessed first-hand the impact that this camp has had on both children and families.
“We get a lot of feedback from the families,” Zajac told SurreyCares. “You wouldn’t think that five to seven days at camp would change a kid’s life, but we hear that all the time. Many of these kids, some of which are in their teens, have never been away from home for the night before.”
“It’s not just the kids who are impacted, but the volunteers and the staff as well. When you see the reactions on some of these kids faces who attend camp, it can change your life as well.”
First, Some Help from the Sundance Kid
You probably didn’t think Paul Newman would play a role in this story, so here’s your surprise twist.
About 25 years ago, Paul Newman started a chain of similar camps for kids with medical conditions in the United States called “Hole in the Wall.” While none of these camps ever made their way to Canada, the idea sure did.
Mel Zajac met Newman after the initial opening of Hole in the Wall. According to Carmen, it was Newman who gave the idea to her father.
“We knew nothing about medical camps at the time when Paul found the site, but my dad agreed with him that it was God’s country, and the decision to transform the site into a ranch for children with medical conditions was born after that.”
Mel Zajac bought the former corrections facility from the government in 2003, and by the summer of 2004 the camp was up and running.
“We felt it was really important to open up camp for 2004, just so donors knew this was real and tangible,” Zajac said. “I think we had 50 campers at summer, now we have almost 500 campers a year.”
“During those first two years, we worked really closely with Hole in the Wall. We’re unique to this, especially on the West Coast. There are camps specific to certain illnesses, but we open it up to all.”
Two Avenues for Your Donations
Since the land was purchase, $20 million has been invested in capital improvements and equipment to make the ranch accessible. Even today, the ideas are still flowing as to how the ranch can be improved.
“We want to build a treehouse, we’re building a canopy walkway, were looking to put in a zipline, we’re increasing our barn facilities and horse facilities, we need more horses for sure” said Zajac. “My dad is talking about building a water park. That’s about $100,000. We’re looking at our donor base and looking to see who wants to build the water park.”
“It’s really been an ongoing fundraising endeavour since the beginning. My dad was a builder and a visionary. Every year he’s looking to improve it to make sure it’s accessible for the kids and that there’s something for them to do.”
For the record, the now 91-year-old Mel Zajac still spends every day working on the ranch, according to Carmen.
For Mel and the rest of the Zajac Ranch team to offer their services to more children, they need donations. As mentioned before, one avenue for donations is for capital, which would allow Zajac Ranch to continue growing their oasis for children.
The other way your donations help? By giving these children the life-changing gift of going to Zajac Ranch.
“When we ask for money, we send out letters for sending kids to camp and some requests are for capital,” Zajac said. “We like to leave it up to the organization decide.”
Last year, Zajac Ranch spent $500,000 to help send families to camp. 70% of families that went to camp last year were able to have at least half of their child’s stay at the camp paid for.
That’s why every donation matters to Carmen and the team at Zajac Ranch. One of those donations was a grant from the SurreyCares Community Foundation during our annual grant ceremony in September, 2018.
“We get excited when we get $1,000,” Zajac said. “We’re often going to SurreyCares and other community groups for grants. Generally, grants are $1,000-$5000 and when you add those all up, it’s huge.”
“Every little bit counts, and it helps that foundations like SurreyCares are geared towards the kids, especially when we get lots of kids from that particular area. There are a lot of families in Surrey that end up coming to our camp.”
According to Zajac Ranch’s 2018 Impact Report, 35% of the children who attended camp were from Surrey and the Fraser Valley.
“We’re very proud of what we’ve done, who we’ve helped, and we absolutely see the need for it,” said Zajac.