Since 1988, children with severe and life-threatening illnesses have been offered an emotional escape from their daunting daily routines with the chance to “just be kids” for a while at a camp nestled deep in the woods of Ashford, Conn.
It’s called The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp and it provides a “different kind of healing” to 20,000 children and their families by altering traditional camp programs so anyone with a physical or mental limitation can participate — and it’s completely free of charge.
Each summer, roughly 1,000 campers from the ages of 7 to 15 descend on the Old West-themed site inspired by “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” a film starring the camp’s founder, Paul Newman.
This year, the coronavirus pandemic disrupted that opportunity for these campers and their families, already all too familiar with battling diseases — from cancer and sickle cell anemia to hemophilia.
But the year-round organization, known for its alternative programming capabilities, was determined to carry on Newman’s mission: to provide an opportunity for children to “experience the transformational spirit and friendships that go hand-in-hand with camp.”
Recently, dedicated staff members and volunteers gathered on Zoom and social media channels from across the Northeast and mid-Atlantic and hosted week-long virtual summer sessions, “camp clubs” and Facebook live events. They were infused with activities from photography, music and theater to cooking, cartooning, creative writing and STEM (science, technology, engineering and medicine) programs.
During what’s known as “Stage Night,” campers were able to showcase talents from singing to dancing, creating a skit, telling a joke, doing a magic trick or playing an instrument in front of their peers over Zoom. Instead of the traditional cheers, campers were able to use the app’s chatbox to send their friends accolades.
Overall, about 500 children took part in such activities.
The Hole in the Wall also hosted virtual family weekends where entire families could join camp activities together right from the comfort of their living rooms.
Participants received a box filled with necessary program supplies based on the activities they chose. They were also given one of the camp’s T-shirts and quilts, items typically found in their cabins.
“We knew it was critical that Hole in the Wall continue to bring Camp magic to them now, when they need it most,” CEO Jimmy Canton said. “So many of our children and families have been experiencing even more isolation than is typical.”
Although camp was a far cry from years past, the efforts didn’t go unnoticed.
“The Family Fun Day we spent at Camp brought happiness, joy and a carefree feeling we haven’t felt in a very long time,” camp mom Shari told Fox News. “We are so grateful for camp.”
Prior to the pandemic, volunteers clad in khaki shorts and wearing smiles that could be seen for miles would wait as droves of children descended upon the woods of Connecticut each summer.
For an entire week, participants could take advantage of programs ranging from horseback riding and swimming to arts, crafts and archery while also receiving care from “significant, yet unobtrusive,” medical staff.
For many, it would be the first time they were able to go to a summer camp.
During fall and spring weekends, otherwise known as Family Camp, their families were invited to join in, getting a chance to let go of the tremendous weight they carry each and every day.
Although The Hole in the Wall provides multiple camp experiences throughout the year on its grounds in Connecticut, staff members also work diligently to provide a ‘different kind of healing’ in camper homes, communities and at more than 40 hospitals and clinics across the Northeast and mid-Atlantic.
During the summer, Hospital Outreach Specialists (HOP), who bring camp activities to children who are too sick to leave the hospital, also turned to Zoom. They conducted virtual group activities and bedside visits to partner hospitals.
Despite the pandemic’s austere and isolating pall, Canton said, his staff embraced Paul Newman’s innovative spirit by finding new ways to deliver the actor’s dream of “a different kind of healing” during a very different time.
The warm days may be over for now, at least in Connecticut, but the events are ongoing. Every Wednesday, staff will jump on Facebook to host another virtual event for children, families and caregivers.