Photograph provided by Hole in the Wall Gang Camp
This traditional summer respite — a woodsy place with fishing and treehouses — is a safe escape for young campers facing life-threatening illnesses
The roads are dirt; the grass worn along footpaths. The buildings — cabins, administration, dining, rec hall, theater, all — are solidly made of rough wood. The floors create an old-stage pounding when you walk across them. Screen doors slam authentically. The medical building with defibrillators and stethoscopes also stocks Candyland, Battleship and colorful, handpainted murals.
This is the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, the kind of place where you dream about tying up your horse to a hitching post and then knocking back a swinging door. It’s the kind of place where even if you are eight years old and recently paralyzed, you get to ride a horse. “You can have fun,” says one camper, “and not be ashamed of your medical problems.”
It’s close to universal law: Every kid should be able to run the bases or climb a tree. If you’re ten, you should be allowed to scrape your knee without a panic. Maybe just get up, dust yourself off, and get back in the game. But the rules change when you are a child with a life-threatening illness.
The Camp — all sunshine and open air, and protectively nestled in a beautifully wild and quiet patch of northeast Connecticut for the last twenty years — cheats these unfair rules. It gives kids with serious illnesses the chance to put being kids ahead of their medical condition. And it does so for all 1,000 campers who spend a week here each summer.
“The illness of a child is one of the greatest injustices imaginable,” says James Canton, who has been with the camp for twenty years and is now its CEO. But this place, in its own way, draws a line and stares down that injustice. It steals back a bit of childhood, thereby checking the balance of fair and unfair. This is their place to be kids and their time to enjoy childhood.
That message is clear the moment campers arrive. At the entrance to the Camp, a prominent ranch sign reads: “The Fun Starts Here.” It’s a straightforward notice with a straightforward message. It reads like a permission slip to put down your baggage — all the needles and medical center whiteness, all the hushed conversations and stares, all the sleepless nights — and pick up a big ball of mud and squish it in your hands.
The stage is set for a rousing Western adventure. The theme is by design, of course. The name of the camp comes from the highest-grossing Western of all time: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford.
“Like Butch and Sundance,” says Canton, “we explain to the children that the camp is a place where you can be safe from those things chasing you in the outside world. Those problems, those issues that weigh you down, can’t come into our camp once you pass through the bouldered entrance. Just like Butch and Sundance were able to escape the people chasing them as they passed through their Hole in the Wall, and, in that space, find safety, respect and love and leave their cares behind.”
A Look Around
The dining hall, in the center of the camp, is well-known for its circular construction. Tables are arranged like spokes on a bicycle wheel; the center of the room is wide open. The children’s posters hang above like flags at the U.N. “This room is as much about eating as it is about singing,” says Willow Ann Sirch, director of communications. “It’s really joyful.”
When talking about the Camp, its founder, Paul Newman’s voice is raspy in a grandfather-like way: “Sometimes I’ll sneak into the dining hall, and the energy is so surprising coming from those kids. Some of them were in the hospital for a good part of the year. Where does it come from? Well, I don’t ask magicians about their secrets, and I don’t ask these kids either, but there is something magical about this place, a different kind of evening. To have one of the campers come up to me and say, ‘This place, to come back here, this is what I live for.’ Pretty powerful stuff.” Here, his voice cracks.
A tour reveals why children love the Camp. The rec room is next to the dining hall. The entrance is ground level, and the observation area overlooks a large court. Willow says this is where the camp holds one of its big annual fundraisers. “This will be our nineteenth one. It raises about $1 million each year,” she says. During this event, people get to tour the camp and mingle with celebrities, such as Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin. Do the kids know who they are? “Mostly no,” says Willow, brightening. “But most of the campers don’t know who Paul Newman is. They think he’s the guy with the salad dressing. I think he loves that, to be honest.”
The theater is next door. “This is where we hold Awards Night. Throughout the week, we discover a special talent each child has or discovered during the week — maybe the child never swam before but was able to swim in our zero-entry pool,” explains Willow. “That child might get an award for swimming.”
Images of the auditorium filled with children and counselors cheering and clapping for each child in the graduation-like ceremony spring to mind. “Every kid is called up,” says one of counselors, “because every kid has gone through this hero’s journey.”
Here, the camp also holds Stage Night — with about 900 costumes to choose from. “Every single camper performs in some way. All by choice, but they all want to,” says Willow. “Nobody wants to be left out, because everyone sees how much fun it is.”
If you’re wondering if the kids dramatize or sing about what they are going through, medically, she counters, “It’s closer to a regular talent night at any school anywhere. There’s a lot less focus on illness here than you might think.”
Further down a dirt path, campers discover the Tree House. It has a long, winding wheelchair-friendly ramp rising through the branches. At the top, campers enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the ballpark, the sandcastle pit, the forty-four acre lake. “You can see the new dock,” says Willow. “Most of the kids here have to avoid direct sunlight, so most of the dock is shaded. And they like to catch fish. They almost never fail to catch one, which is very exciting to a lot of these kids.”
The miniature golf course is modified to accommodate wheelchairs; so is the hiking trail through the woods. Though flat and smooth, it is left slightly overgrown to capture a deep-in-the-woods feel.
The real challenge is the Tower. At forty feet, the climbing tower is purposely imposing. Yet every camper is capable of scaling it because of an assisted belay system. Climbers are encouraged to climb as much as they can but are helped when needed. In fact, when a young person is unable to climb at all, he or she can be slowly raised with his or her cabin mates helping with the assisted-climbing device. Every child earns the experience of being on top of the obstacle. They then decide if they want to go down the 250-foot zipline, rappel or slowly be lowered. Nerves are tempered with loud cheers from cabin mates and counselors.
What makes this place magical? No one questions the recipe as much as drinks in its soupy warmth, but the basics include an immeasurably large dose of the essential philosophy (inclusion, safety, respect, love, connection, accomplishment) and then pouring this into the mold of traditional summer camp basics (fishing, tree houses, golf courses, sand castles, arts and crafts, marshmallows, singing and dancing) and a generous dash of unexpected amenities (hot-air balloons, a recording studio, totem poles, an amphitheater). The experience is simultaneously simple and wondrously complex, just like childhood itself.
It all started two decades ago. Paul Newman and A. E. Hotchner were six years into Newman’s Own — a brand of salad dressings, spaghetti sauces, and about seventy-seven other products. To date, $250 million of the company’s profits have assisted thousands of charities worldwide.
Families with ill children would write for help. Foundations such as Newman’s Own are restricted to helping charities and organizations, not individuals. So, in 1988, Newman was inspired to help these families by starting a summer camp.
Hole in the Wall Camps are now the world’s largest family of camps for children with serious illnesses (eleven independent charities carry the name: five in the States, five in Europe and one in the Middle East; and more in development).
You see Newman’s footprint when the campers dust up some dirt, just like kids should. But the young people find so much in common with one another — just being around other kids who have also lost hair, know about needle jabs, and have used catheters. Pills, rubber gloves, medical equipment … “It’s leukemia,” “It’s sickle cell anemia,” “It’s HIV,” “It’s something serious” — these are shared realities for the campers. Confronting a burgeoning self-awareness that is natural to children ages seven to fourteen, and dealing with diagnoses and treatments, far more unnatural, can fuel strong emotions — especially isolation and separateness. But not when they are all together at Camp.
One camper was fourteen when he had just finished chemotherapy and radiation treatments for brain and spinal cancer. His legs were weak, he had nerve damage, and he had to use a wheel chair. His father says, “Our son had lost all his enthusiasm. He was always smiling, and that changed. He was fighting his cancer, but the treatments and nerve damage took a heavy toll on his personality and outlook on life.” But Camp, he says, “gives these children a connection to a very unique family. It shows them that they are not the only ones fighting their fight. This brings them comfort. They also see there may be others fighting a tougher fight. This gives them a perspective that helps them cope.”
Another camper was diagnosed with Acute Myelogenous Leukemia her first week of eighth grade. Chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant made her feel like she had lost a year of her childhood. “Camp gave that year back to me,” she says. “You are not the only one with a bald head, a wheel chair, or an amputated limb. You look like the other kids. … Camp is an oasis. It allows children the escape they deserve from the constant poking, prodding, at times humiliating and most definitely painful and frightening situation that is cancer. Camp is life changing and life giving. It is that simple.”
Something about the rustic cabins, which shelter eight to ten campers and four counselors each, the long days and breezy, firefly evenings, the candlelight, the screen windows, the away-from-home uniqueness, and being with kids who share similar experiences and concerns create a naturally reflective time and safe environment in which to open up.
“We girls would lie awake for hours talking — about anything … the day ahead at Camp, school, hobbies, music, movies, boys, family, dreams and sometimes even our illnesses, worries, fears and struggles,” says a former camper. “We could end up laughing or occasionally even crying, but, either way, it just felt like we really understood each other in a way that was probably different from anyone else in our lives.”
The staff — a highly trained and compassionate group of medical professionals, counselors and administrators — encourages bonding. “We do Cabin Chat every night with our children,” says Canton. “Cabin Chat” is Camp lingo for the end-of-the-day wind down. “We ask questions like, ‘Who’s your favorite superhero?’ or ‘What was the best thing you did today?’ They’re pretty safe topics.”
Purposely so, Willow concurs: “Through those questions, children who have something to say … often feel empowered to say it.” But, she adds, “If a child is feeling sick, he or she is attended to on par with any hospital. But sickness is not in the forefront of their minds when they’re here.”
The staff includes a full-time medical director and a director of nursing. The camp also has a host of volunteer doctors and nurses at each session. “Our medical team can administer chemotherapy and provide blood transfusions. We have generators available for children who require oxygen,” says Canton.
Willow offers, “When you have so many doctors and nurses here, though, the kids are playing with them; it’s not like in a medical center.” No stainless steel, white tiles, fluorescent lights; think wall murals, stuffed animals, skylights. Children play checkers while receiving chemotherapy.
The stealthily sophisticated OK Corral Infirmary is in place for the kids’ medical needs; everything else at Camp is for their spirit. Because the place is so safe, the campers can immerse themselves in traditional camp activities, modified to meet medical needs. At camp, they finally have a chance to participate — something other kids may take for granted. Most kids can just go fishing, take a hike, or “raise a little hell,” as Newman puts it.
Canton says: “What some think is trivial — creating a safe place in which sick children can re-experience their childhood — is not just important, but urgent in the lives of so many of our campers.”
Remarkably, about 25 percent of the counselors are former campers. “There is no better counselor than someone who has been a former camper,” says Canton. “They can share their story, they can identify, and it’s often shocking for the campers when they find out that their counselor was a former camper. Their faces light up, and there is this immediate sense of awe and respect.
“They were walking in the trenches as campers and experiencing Camp that way. Most of them are continuing to live with serious illness. But they’re doing it and are able to give back.”
He adds, “Somehow their experience as children with a serious condition makes a bit more sense … that illness served a purpose of bringing them to the point where they can be role models for these younger kids.”
These counselors also grow. Jimmy, a camper and now a counselor, notes of one particular camper, “He did everything. By the end of the week, I was seeing him, not as a sick person, but just as a person. It was a turning point for me.”
Jimmy now works for the camp’s hospital outreach program, which brings the camp experience into hospitals. “Some of the kids may be in isolation while in treatment, and in isolation for months, because of their compromised immune systems,” says Willow. The outreach program “brings the joy of camp into the hospital setting” by entertaining the kids, letting them sing and practice a craft. Laughter and creating connections help the healing process.
The counselors find support from one another. “The end of every camp session is a really tender time,” says Canton. “We gather staff and reflect on the session and air special moments with one another … it’s really important that your colleagues know what you just experienced, if you may be going through a down spot, if you’re really concerned about a certain camper. Some of that stress is alleviated by the friends beside you, helping you bear that concern. There are so many good people here, that when people are emotionally strained, it’s the numbers that help defuse that emotional burden.”
The camp relies heavily on volunteer doctors, nurses and lots of counselors. Newman’s Own — which provided the seed money (reportedly $7 million) — continues to give one of the most generous gifts the camp receives, yet it is only about 2 percent of what the Camp needs. “Our budget this year is $7.5 million and we’ll receive 15,000 donations. We’re just one of hundreds of charities Newman’s Own supports.” The camp was charged from its beginning with establishing its own fundraising team and covering its own costs, according to Canton.
And it has grown. New activities and modifications make it possible for ever more acutely ill children to attend; outreach programs bring camp to those too ill to leave the hospital; bereavement camps help families cope with the loss of a child; reunion camps bring former campers and staff together. There are also family and sibling camps. “We quickly learned that when we support the families of seriously ill children, we help the children themselves,” Canton reports.
The camp now runs year-round. While 1,000 attend summer camp, another 4,000 participate in fall, winter and spring programs; another 10,000 participate in the year-round hospital programs, with twelve dedicated full-time Outreach Specialists. Although Newman has expressed his wish that the camp become independently strong, he and the camp are inextricably intertwined. Just like Butch and Sundance, they have more fun together than apart. He has said, “I hope that the camps last longer than the legacy of my films.”
No one who has seen Newman’s films will forget them; it is equally impossible to forget about Hole in the Wall Gang Camp after a visit. It is easier to agree with him when he says, “When I’m up here at this camp, I’m reminded about everything that is good and generous about this country.”