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.
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’.”
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.
The cabins are solid, straightforward structures with the rustic smell of exposed wood. Walking to the center of one, around which are arrayed four bunk beds, Canton says, “The best fun starts and ends right here.”
After a day of activities, campers return to their cabins, which begin to feel like home. “At night we light a candle to quiet the kids down,” said Canton. “We put the candle in the middle of the room and throw out an innocuous question like, ‘What was the best part of the day?’ or, ‘If you had a superpower what would it be?’ We then step back and let them take it where they will.”
Other actors have followed Newman’s lead, including Bradley Cooper and Julia Roberts, both of whom were counselors.
“Julia Roberts was with the youngest kids around the time she made Hook,” recalls Canton. “One little girl was crying and didn’t want her parents to leave. They told her to go in and look around and then tell them how they could make it more like her room at home. The girl went inside and came back out a few minutes later, totally calm. ‘It’s okay,’ she explained, ‘Tinkerbell is my counselor’.”
Perhaps the most important building at the camp is the one trying hardest to be invisible: the infirmary. Called the OK Corral, it was built to resemble a large bunkhouse, rimmed with a charming mural created by longtime arts-and-crafts coordinator Sherry Talley that tells the story of Hole in the Wall Gang Camp and incorporates “Waltzing With Bears,” a song that’s part of the camp folklore. Other light touches abound, including signs that say “Hug Somebody. It’s The Law.” The idea, obviously, is to downplay the ominous aura of hospitals, with which campers are all too familiar. Indeed, with the staff dressed casually—it’s not unusual to find a doctor in a tie-dyed T-shirt—one barely notices the oxygen tanks, trunk loads of pills and drugs and the gleaming metal equipment. At summer’s peak, 12 to 15 nurses and three or four physicians are on duty full-time.
“This building is emblematic of the care here,” says nursing director Juli Mason. “There are no white lab coats. There’s safety in knowing you’re in the ‘OK Corral.’”
“The goal is to have kids back out as soon as possible,” said Dr. Sharon Space, who started at the camp as a counselor when she was in medical school. She has since helped retool the infirmary to accommodate campers with conditions that, in the past, would have precluded their coming.
“We couldn’t take every child because our primary mission at first was for cancer and blood diseases,” said Space. “We review every application and decide if we can meet all of the needs of that child. We can deal better with the more seriously ill than we could in the past. The parents are so grateful because they never would have been able to go to camp.”
If the infirmary is the most vital building, the dining hall may be the most impressive. With its high vaulted ceiling and capacious floor space, it resembles Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies, especially when festooned with the signature banners created by each cabin that include the names of every camper.
But Canton believes the “most sacred building on campus” is the nearby theater.
“This place has absorbed all the most special moments,” he says, opening the doors and flipping on the lights. “Paul wanted to create a space that looked like a theater for adults but was built on the scale of children.”
Canton seems to live for the Awards Night at the end of each summer session. “Most of the campers end up on stage,” he says. “Each child called up is cheered wildly and they just soak up all that support. Every child receives an award, and everyone else is screaming, ‘You’re amazing!’ when they get it.”
Canton recalls one spellbinding moment.
“We had a young girl here with brain cancer and because of an operation she could not tolerate loud noises,” he says. “For most of the week, she had to sit outside the dining hall or other venues because of the noise.”
Canton explained the situation to the other campers and asked that instead of applauding or shouting when she got her award they just hold their hands in the air.
“Then she was led inside,” he says. “Not only was it completely silent, but the arms were up in the air waving wildly. All you could hear was her wheelchair moving along the mezzanine and you saw all these hands in the air shaking wildly. She just burst out laughing at the sight. We try to convey to campers that the rest of the world needs that sort of spirit and that this place can exist anywhere in the world, not just in the northeast corner of Connecticut.”
While the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp gears up for anniversary events in the coming year, one person missing is Paul Newman, who died in 2008.
“Paul was a big presence here,” says Canton. “He came once or twice a session. He rejoiced as the founder but he also did not want to miss out on all the fun, which could be maddening for me as the camp director because he was always pushing the envelope.”
Canton recalls the time Newman pulled a lily pad out of Pearson’s Pond and used it as a hat decoration. “He was called out for that later in the dining hall,” Canton says. “He had to shake his bushy tail in front of the other campers in recompense.”
Another time, Newman snuck a flag into camp that he wanted to hoist to the top of the tree house. “I was horrified because it was a skull-and-crossbones flag, the universal symbol for poison,” says Canton. “I said to Paul, ‘Uh, you might want to think about putting a bandana on the skull or something’. He was quiet for a few seconds and then said, ‘Okay, I just thought about it . . . Let’s hoist the flag!’”
Just months before he died, Newman visited the camp with board chair Ray Lamontagne, to whom he said, “They said we were crazy and look what we’ve accomplished.”
“Paul was totally into the kids ‘raising a little hell’,” says Canton. “But he hadn’t realized about the transformations that could take place in the kids themselves. I think that really surprised him.”