Success Stories: Hole in the Wall Gang Camp
Paul Newman would be proud—and very happy—to see how his idea for a camp in Ashford for kids with serious illnesses has flourished and continued to grow.
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You better have a hanky handy when you talk to James H. “Jimmy” Canton, CEO of The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp. Same goes for Sharon Space, the camp’s medical director. Ditto Juli Mason, the nursing director, and Ryan Thompson, senior development officer, and, really, any of hundreds of staffers and volunteers who’ve put in time at the 344-acre facility in Ashford, founded by Paul Newman to provide free summer fun for seriously ill children.
When recounting their experiences with children battling cancer, leukemia, sickle cell anemia, HIV, hemophilia and other rarer “orphan diseases” over the past 25 years, any one of them may start sniffling, tearing up or weeping. But here’s the Surgeon General’s warning: When you hear some of the stories, you’ll be prone to the same symptoms. You’d have to have a heart of stone to be inoculated from them.
As Canton puts it, “You just have to get used to that level of emotion here.”
It hit him that way from the outset. He began his Hole in the Wall career as a counselor, moving up to unit leader, assistant director and camp director before taking his current post in 2002. On a recent tour of the camp, Canton suddenly pointed to one of the cabins in the color-coded “Yellow” unit.
“That was my first cabin in 1988, when I started as a counselor,” he said. “The cabins had been built over the previous winter and I was assigned to scrub out the toilets and pick up any nails left in the yard before the first campers arrived. By the end of the session, my group of boys were crying about having to leave camp. I had to go outside and sit on that rock over there and weep to myself.”
Canton, a graduate of Yale Divinity School, says, “This place feeds a part of your soul.”
Indeed, the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp has fed the souls of countless children, adults and families since that first wave of campers. Over the first summer of 1988, the camp served 288 seriously ill children. Since then, year-round programs have been added as well as the Hospital Outreach Program in 2002. By 2012, the camp was serving 1,200 summer campers, another 1,500 via fall and spring weekend family retreats and thousands more in hospitals. The Hospital Outreach Program, led by 20 top summer camp counselors—or “HOPs”—brings the camp spirit to the bedsides of children in 21 regional medical facilities between Boston and New York. In Connecticut, these include Yale-New Haven Hospital and the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center.
What began with Paul Newman’s simple desire to offer, free of charge, a safe place where sick kids could “raise a little hell,” has gone global. Inspired by the success of the Ashford camp, a network of 14 other camps has formed in other states, and in Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America. Previously known as “Hole in the Wall Gang Camps,” these offshoot camps are now part of SeriousFun Children’s Network.
“Each camp is independent,” says Canton. “We share our best practices and export good ideas to them, but each camp raises its own funds and operates on its own. We consider our camp in Connecticut the ‘first born’.”