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 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.”