The only source of light in the cabin was the water bottle with a flashlight underneath. All of the campers were in their bunks and all of the counselors were sitting at the end of each bed on their trunks.
“If you could have dinner with anyone who would it be and what would you eat?” asked Will McDonald, a counselor in cabin Green 13 during a tradition called cabin chat.
“I would eat dinner with Paul Newman, to say thank you for everything he’s done for me….and we’d eat pizza.” Said Connor, a camper in Green 13. Within a few weeks he’d learn that he was cancer free.
In 1988, actor and race car driver Paul Newman decided he wanted to open a camp for children living with serious illness. Over the course of nine months Newman found a plot of land and developed 33 buildings able to honor the medical needs of all of these children and named it “The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp” after his hit movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”.
At first, the summer camp was just a fun thing for kids living in hospitals to do. It was a place to get away, where they could live in an environment with no rules or regulations. What Newman could have never predicted is how the camp would have such an impact on these children. Doctors became stunned as their patient’s started to become incredibly resilient and many of them started to do the unthinkable: survive. “The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp” was giving children a reason to live, a reason to fight for another year.
Now the camp serves more than 1,000 children per summer. Children ages 8-15 all with diagnoses like cancer, sickle cell anemia, HIV/AIDS, and metabolic disorder stay in a cabin of ten others to bond through their experiences. They partake in 12 programs ranging from theater, to woodshop, to a 30 foot ropes course and so much more. Through these programs and camp traditions, psychologists and child life specialists have been able to come up with a way to make sure that the campers get to take home as much as possible to set them up for success in the next, week, month, year and even decade after they leave camp.
“Camp was five years old when they started to appreciate that kids were acting out along the lines of their traumas and their adjustment to their chronic or acute illnesses and camp began to realize that it couldn’t be just about entertaining kids and forgetting about their lives for a while it was also about moving their lives forward.” says Dr. Karen Carlson, the former camp psychologist.
When children grow up with a serious illness they tend to miss out on critical social developmental opportunities. When they would be learning how to make friends and try new things in elementary school, many of them are spending their days in hospitals. Camp provides these kids with a safe and supportive environment where they can refine their skills and take home the confidence to make friends.
“A lot of time in the hospital, with your parents, living in the world of adults that are holding different expectations of you. Natural consequences. The biggest impact that has to do with social skills in normative child environments at schools. Illness can take a big toll on self esteem and aspects of social development and the treatments can impact basic things like memory and learning and things like that” says Dr. Carlson.
At the first day of camp every session the camp director asks the kids to do three things: “Make friends, try new things, and be kind to one another.” The entire week is based in these three goals. Counselors push kids to get into their “stretch zone,” which is where a person is uncomfortable with something but can push themselves to try it and become comfortable with it.
Clare Watkins, an osteosarcoma survivor and current Adventure counselor tells her story:
“Camp takes a program that could be a fun thing to do and making it more by trying something new or pushing them to get out of their comfort zone and learning about themselves. When I was a senior camper doing the tower was the most stressful thing for me. It seemed like something I just couldn’t do especially because there were no other campers in my cabin with mobility issues. But because of that I felt like I had to. I was so scared of heights and I felt so bad about my conditions and I cried as they were hooking me in. Both years I made it to the top of the tower by climbing the rock wall and I zip lined down and I did something that I didn’t think I could do and that’s what camp is and that’s why I wanted to be on adventure because that’s such a big moment and taking something that was once so frightening to me and being so comfortable with it.”
This is where intentionality was born. Every thing at the camp from the words the counselors use, to the songs that play in the dining hall, to each program have a specific purpose. Campers only come to Ashford, CT for one week out of the year, so it’s the camp’s mission to provide these children with as much magic, inspiration, and growth to last them the rest of the year.
“Intentionality is just making sure that everything that you’re doing is for the benefit of the camper. Thinking ‘what do these campers need’ and then going from there.” Says Stephanie Bellman, the Assistant Program Director at Hole in the Wall.
A 2016 study conducted by Dr. Ann Gillard, the camp Director of Research and Evaluation, follows the program impacts that over the course of just one week on the children and their families. 53% of parents reported that their children’s sense of possibility increased a lot and 32% reported that it increased some. The majority of children also reporting an increase in friendship and connection skills. As fun as the programs are, most campers remember one thing over any other: the counselors. Training staff to create a loving, supportive, and overall goofy environment lets the campers know that camp is a place to be themselves and try new things.
“The people make it special like the facilities are amazing but it’s the people you meet or the counselors I had that made sure I had a great week. My camp friends will always stay with me. Everyone at camp just gets it.” says Taylor Alcorn, a former sibling camper and current horse barn counselor.
With the first former camper on the board of directors and now 40% of the full summer staff (and countless number of volunteers) being former campers, one thing is apparent: camp makes a long lasting impact on everyone who has the opportunity to step on the grounds.
So thank you Paul for this Hole in the Wall.
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