ROCKINGHAM — Barbara and Leo McAuley say God led them to Richmond County — and Gary Holt, president of Ol Skool Tribe Riding Club, says God led him to the McAuleys.
Ol Skool will be hosting a motorcycle ride Sunday to benefit the Krystal Dawn Retreat, a place the McAuleys are building to help families with special needs children get away for a bit.
Barbara McAuley said they were looking for land in North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee for the planned retreat, somewhere relatively close to her mother.
“Every time we’d pull into a place, we’d always pray, ‘If this is the place, Lord, open the doors. If it’s not shut, the doors and we’ll go to the next,” she said.
The couple had looked at more than 100 properties before they drove up to the 34-acre spot on Sneads Mill Road, just south of Cordova.
She said they went to the county to make sure they could do what they wanted to do.
“God just opened the doors and we said, “OK, this is where we’re supposed to be.’”
The retreat gets its name from Barbara McAuley’s late daughter, Krystal Dawn, who had more than 50 surgeries in her short lifetime and died at the age of 13.
Barbara McAuley said Krystal Dawn was on IVs her entire life and her body rejected a multiple organ transplant.
Shortly after she was born, Krystal Dawn developed pneumonia and when she was in the newborn intensive care unit, doctors discovered she had spinal meningitis, which shut down part of brain.
Being on IVs destroyed her liver and kidneys and she lost her intestines as well.
The family had to go to Canada for the organ transplant surgery because only two with similar circumstances had been performed at the time.
“We just had a heart for parents and families with special needs because nobody knows unless you’ve been there and you’ve been through that, know what they go through on a daily basis” she said. “And it doesn’t just affect …the mom and dad, it affects everybody … especially siblings.”
The goal of the retreat is to bring families “to a place where they can relax and enjoy nature and do things.”
“Because what normally happens is, when you have a special needs child, one parent goes one direction, one goes another, so they’re never together,” she said. “At this retreat, we’re going to accommodate it so that everybody can do everything together and be together … make a family memory.”
Barbara McAuley said they want to try to have two families at the retreat at one time so they can meet and possibly form a support system with each other.
“By doing this, we’re not only honoring (Krystal Dawn), but we’re honoring all the people that carried us,” she said. “When you go through something like that, it’s just so overwhelming that you just don’t realize it.”
The McAuleys are hoping to be open for day trips this summer and that the retreat will help relieve some of the burden for other families.
They’ve already had one family — with a daughter diagnosed with stage 4 cancer — make a visit.
“(She) loved it, didn’t want to go home that day,” Barbara McAuley said.
One plan for the site is a petting zoo.
Leo McAuley said they’re planning to have smaller animals — miniature goats and cows, and chickens — so children aren’t intimidated.
“Animals are therapy to children, whether it be the special needs child or any of them,” Barbara McAuley said.
They will also have boating and other water activities, with plans for a beachy area, on the site’s 7-acre pond, and ADA-accessible walking trails.
Eventually, the McAuleys want to build an addition onto their home so they can house families who come to the retreat, as well as an area for groups like the local Autism Society to have meetings and play dates.
Holt said he was told about the retreat and thought it would be a good cause for the club to support.
“It was amazing how it all came together,” Holt said following a benefit ride earlier this month that raised an estimated $10,000. “When you try to do something from your heart, I think God honors that.”
Ol Skool has held rides the past seven years to benefit special needs children in Richmond County for Pence Place, Cordova School (before it was made a middle school) and Sandhills Children’s Center.
“It really touched our hearts because we’ve not been here that long and it’s like, for somebody wanting to do this and help with that, it’s pretty awesome,” Barbara McAuley said.
The ride was originally slated for Saturday, but a rainy forecast resulted in the club moving it to Sunday.
Riders will leave Rockingham VFW Post 4203 at 2 p.m., and take U.S. 1 into South Carolina where they will turn west on S.C. 9 and drive to Morven and come back up to U.S. 74 to return to the post.
“It’s all right turns,” Holt said.
Donations for the ride include a meal and there will also be an auction, door prizes and a raffle.
For more information, contact Holt at 910-206-1218.
(Note: The route was corrected. 6 p.m. 2-23-21)