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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The first thing you see upon entering the Hole in the Wall Camp grounds is a gaily-painted sign announcing, “Welcome. The Fun Starts Here.” As you continue along a dirt road that passes alongside 44-acre Pearson’s Pond (named for the original medical director), you travel between two rock formations. Once through this “portal,” you’ve entered “the hole in the wall” that simulates the hideout used by the outlaws in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The film, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, was loosely based on historical events—a white stone from the Wyoming site of the actual Hole in the Wall sits like a totem at the center of the camp amphitheater.
“We give them the G-rated version,” says Ryan Thompson. “We tell them that, just like it was Butch and Sundance’s hideout, this is where you can feel safe.”
The camp comprises 36 buildings, 35 of which were built over a nine-month period during a brutal winter by a crew of Canadians. The idea for the camp had come to Newman the previous summer and, despite its seeming complexity (all those buildings, a medical and volunteer staff, from scratch), he made it happen largely through force of personality. He regularly took the workers out for pizza and beer, and the camp was completed in time for the first campers’ arrival.
“He pulled out the stops to make it happen, and with the same twinkle in his eye he had when he founded Newman’s Own,” says Thompson. “There were doubters, but he said, ‘No, we’re going to open by next year’.”
Each summer, the camp hosts eight six-day sessions for children ages 7 to 15, and a ninth session for siblings of seriously ill children because, as Canton notes, “Behind every seriously ill child is a family in crisis.”
Two of the weeklong sessions are for kids with sickle cell anemia and one is for HIV-positive kids. The other five are for a “mix” of illnesses. There are five clusters of cabins, defined by colors and broken down by age and gender. Each comprises three cabins, each for six to eight campers and four staffers.
Mary Ellen Talbot’s son and only child, Liam, 15, has been a camper for four years. They heard about the camp while Liam was undergoing treatment at Mass General Hospital, where a HOP named Kevin Rice suggested he might like to try it.
“I didn’t think it was possible because of the severity of Liam’s illness,” says Talbot, a therapist in Hanson, Mass. “But I watched the videos and talked to some of the staff members and they really listened.”
Still wary, Liam and his mother attended a weekend family retreat. “We were there about 11 minutes and he said, ‘Hey, I’m coming here to camp!’ He is so sold on it now that there isn’t a day that passes that he doesn’t talk about camp.”
Though Liam now takes 30 different medications—a daily regimen of 68 pills—and has endured bouts of exhaustion and one painful spinal tap, his mother says, “I’m not going to raise him inside a plastic bubble. Camp has helped me avoid that. It’s sacred ground to us.”
Liam likes to joke that every time he and his mother drive through the front gate, her heart rate suddenly relaxes while his pumps into overdrive.
“This place is heaven for me,” says Liam. “This is what I go through the other 359 days of hell to get to. One of its beauties is you don’t have to explain anything to anybody.”
Thompson says, “Serious illness can be isolating for a kid. Here you have camaraderie that can only come walking beside others like you. They get to see 120 kids like them.”
“Stage Night boosted my confidence,” Liam says of the entertainment revue held on the second-to-last night of each session. “It doesn’t matter what you do, you will be supported by everyone. At one point, 20 people came up on stage while I was singing.”
Liam now not only performs in Broadway-style revues in front of 1,200 people for gala fundraisers, he has given speeches about his experiences.