It’s a sunny August morning in Phillipsburg, and a young boy from Irvington is riding a pony for the very first time.
A little nervous at first, he gains confidence as the stable’s owner leads the pony – named Edgar Allen Pony, or Poe for short – on a slow walk around the paddock. After a few minutes he relaxes, grins, releases his grip on the saddle’s pommel, and flashes a thumbs up to his watching mother and siblings.
Also watching, and ready to provide a steadying hand when needed, is Colleen Wolfe, Program Director of Haven of Hope for Kids, the ministry that is making this experience possible.
Launched in 2004 by St. Luke’s Church in Hope (now part of St. Luke & St. Mary, Hope & Belvidere), Haven of Hope ministers to families of chronically ill children by providing them with a free five-day vacation in rural western New Jersey, near the Pennsylvania border.
Families are referred to Haven of Hope primarily by hospital social workers. Some of the children have cancer diagnoses; others have life-long medical conditions such as sickle-cell anemia or cystic fibrosis. In recent years, Haven of Hope has expanded its program to include children on the autism spectrum.
“Our business is helping these families in need with making memories,” says Haven of Hope Board President Amy Hovell.
From Wednesday until Monday morning, the family stays in a cottage that St. Luke’s owns directly behind the church. During their stay they have a choice of activities with Haven of Hope’s partners, which in addition to the Phillipsburg horse farm include a bowling alley, Land of Make Believe in Hope, Lakota Wolf Preserve in Columbia, and the Belvidere Community Pool.
The partners either donate their services for free or provide them to Haven of Hope at a discounted cost, which the ministry covers. Low-income families can also receive a stipend for groceries.
Sometimes, though, it’s the simple pleasures that mean the most. Noting that about 90% of their families come from urban communities in New Jersey and New York, Wolfe describes how, “We had one family who didn't even make it in the front door – the kids ran straight to the yard.” Where they lived, they didn't have a yard.
“What I love about our program,” Wolfe says, “is that we have the whole family unit. Parents have a chance to relax.” Usually, she says, “they're in and out of hospitals” with their sick child.
“I try to make this as seamless as possible for families,” she continues. “If there’s a problem with the schedule, I work it out. This is their vacation.”
The program runs for 10 weeks each summer, from late June through August, hosting a different family each week. Several additional local families are also served by Haven of Hope each summer by providing them with day trips.
Haven of Hope is Wolfe’s summer job. A professional child development specialist, her job the rest of the year is doing early interventions with children up to age 3. Because of her professional training, “I can meet the needs of not only children but parents as well.” She often finds herself providing a sympathetic ear to an overwhelmed parent.
She is assisted by Program Coordinator Emily Carter, whose “regular” job is as an aide in the local school district working with children on the autism spectrum.
“We also have very active board members who are very involved,” Wolfe notes, and when needed, she can call on one of several volunteer translators.
After every family member has a turn riding Edgar Allen Pony, the next stop of the day is the Belvidere Community Pool. Like the horseback riding, this is a new experience. Again, there is some nervousness, but soon the children are lining up to try out the pool’s slide.
Wolfe sums up Haven of Hope’s ministry: “We're here to have fun with the families.”
All photos by Nina Nicholson.