Dreamnight at the Zoo a special time for families of kids with life-threatening conditions

Maggie Castro, 2, is held by her father, Gorge, while she feeds a giraffe, and her sister Izabella, 11, watches during Dreamnight at the Zoo on Friday, when hundreds of families of children battling life-threatening conditions enjoyed a fun night out. (Photo: Courtney Hergesheimer/Columbus Dispatch)

For the Castro family, Friday’s Dreamnight at the Zoo was more than just a trip to see some exotic animals.

Sure, Sarah Castro said, the family had moved from California to Ohio right before the pandemic started and since they were coming from San Diego — a city with the No. 1-rated zoo in the U.S. — visiting the zoo here was something they have all been looking forward to from the moment they arrived.

But the program organized by the nonprofit A Kid Again offered a different reason to celebrate: After two years, 6-year-old Coral Castro has just recently finished her treatment for leukemia,.

Thanks to the special program, hundreds of families with children who have life-threatening conditions were able to stay after hours at the zoo — free of charge — to enjoy an evening as a family.

A Kid Again is a national nonprofit that was founded in 1995 in central Ohio by Poe Timmons, Kathy Derr and Jeffrey Damron. Its goal is to create an experience not just for children with life-threatening conditions, but their families too.

Travis Gulling, executive director at the central Ohio chapter of A Kid Again, said the organization was created when one of the three founders’ families realized that there wasn’t a nonprofit at the time that included the family of children with life-threatening conditions.

Dreamnight at the Zoo is one of the many “adventures” put on by the organization, each with a specific goal in mind.

“Research shows, when you have something to look forward to, you fight harder through your illness… which is why we exist, and why we partner with people like the zoo,” Gulling said.

At the zoo on Friday, Gulling stopped in his tracks to catch a glimpse of an A Kid Again mother and child riding together on top of a camel. The little girl was smiling, hands up in the air, and the mother was beaming from ear to ear.

“This is what makes it worth it,” he said. “You see the smiles, and it’s awesome for us. We’ve had some really tough moments with families. It makes you get up every day to try to make an impact for the kids.”

Rick Ricart, chairman of the central Ohio chapter of A Kid Again, said he couldn’t stop volunteering after his first time witnessing an adventure.

“I see all the volunteers of the zoo sticking around, and you’re allowing these children to do the things they don’t get to do on a normal day,” Ricart said.

The nonprofit has expanded into Indiana, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Michigan, and North Carolina, and it has helped more than 200,000 people total.

Marion Edens, who was at the zoo event, said that her family has been participating in the program for six years and that they joined after they found out their 10-year-old daughter Alexes was diagnosed with cancer.

While Edens said that the zoo is her favorite event, Alexes said there were too many to count and she just couldn’t choose a favorite.

All of the organization’s adventures are free of charge; families can apply online at akidagain.org\enrollnow. The group also provides meals for the families, gas cards when an adventure is far away, and waives costs for little things like feeding the giraffes at Dreamnight at the Zoo.

“Thirty percent of our families make about $30,000 a year, but they have about $500,000 in medical debt, which is the average for our families,” Gulling said. “They shouldn’t have to worry about gas.”

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