Web Exclusives: PawPlus

February 21, 2007:

A week at summer camp
When Sam Hartwell '52 was a volunteer counselor, the hardest part was saying good-bye

I spent a week in late June as a volunteer counselor at Paul Newman's Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Ashford, Conn., a rural community in the northeastern corner of the state, about an hour from Boston. The camp opened in 1988 to provide a week of fun, support, and encouragement to children with life-threatening illnesses. They range in age from 7 to 15, and many are from inner-city backgrounds. Their diseases include cancer, hemophilia, sickle cell anemia, epilepsy, diabetes, and HIV/AIDS. Campers are referred by hospitals in New Haven, New York, Hartford, Guilford, Boston, Worcester, and Providence. Some volunteer nurses and doctors also come from these hospitals. The camp, as well as campers' transportation to and from it, is free.

Since this camp opened, Newman has established camps in four other states (California, Florida, New York, and North Carolina) and five overseas locations (Africa, England, France, Ireland, and Israel). All are independently governed and funded. More than 100,000 children have attended the camps since 1988, including 15,000 in 2006. New camps are in the works, including ones in Hungary and Italy.

About the camp

The Ashford camp, whose architecture projects an "Old West" motif throughout, sits on 325 acres of wooded and cleared land. The entrance is understated; in fact, you can whiz right past it if you are not looking hard. A long dirt lane goes past a lake, into woods, past fields (for the horses) and a remote parking lot (for all staff, no exceptions), and arrives at the camp complex. This consists of 15 log cabins circling a great lawn (each cabin holds eight campers, four counselors, bathrooms, a common room, and two porches); the Stockade, Bunkhouse, and Lulu's Lodge (for additional staff); the administrative building (for the brass); the infirmary (in reality, a comprehensive medical unit with volunteer and full-time doctors and nurses on duty 24/7); four arts and crafts buildings that resemble a street scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; a large, round dining hall; a theatre designed by Newman (with a reduced-scale stage for child performers) with dressing rooms, makeup mirrors, costumes, and the works; a very large swimming pool (kept at 90 degrees because cold aggravates some diseases, especially sickle cell anemia; a glass warming house next to the pool – the "French fryer" – kept at an even higher temperature; a sports center with a basketball court, pool tables, and other games; stables with a covered riding ring; a climbing wall; and a boathouse holding fishing gear, rowboats, canoes, paddleboats, and a pontoon powerboat (for fishing). The investment in the camp is in the area of $20 million. Donors are recognized by plaques (one reads, "Kingdom of Saudi Arabia").

The direct-service staff during the time I was there numbered 107 persons, almost a one-to-one ratio to the 120 campers. Of these, 68 were counselors; 39 were full season (i.e., all nine weeks) and were paid, and 29 were one-week volunteers (like me). Sixteen of us volunteers had never been to the camp as a staff member or camper; we were given extraordinary support by the experienced staff. The full-season counselors tended to be college students; some had been campers. The volunteers came from a great variety of careers. The few I had a chance to talk with included a priest from Kenosha, Wis.; a woman entering University of Pennsylvania Medical School in September; a doctor in residency at New York-Presbyterian Hospital; a practicing nurse from Children's Hospital in Boston; heads of two newly launched health-related nonprofits; an actor from California; a professional climbing guide interested in a career in "Special Olympics" climbing; and a teacher from Ireland.

Another 29 of the staff members were program supervisors (overseeing horseback riding, the pool, the climbing wall, archery, fishing, boating, arts and crafts, the woodshop, the theatre, and the gym). There were also two doctors and eight nurses. This list does not include the kitchen staff, buildings and grounds personnel, security, and administrative staff. The camp's annual budget is about $6 million, for a cost per camper of about $5,500.

Becoming a volunteer

Applying to be a volunteer was not easy. The application form called for five short essays ("Who are you?" "Why is this a priority?" "What do you think the camp does for seriously ill children?") There was also an abstract drawing and the question, "What is it?" Three references were required. Then came the physical exam, the inoculations, and proof of immunity. Finally came the e-mail: "Congratulations, you have been accepted as a volunteer for summer 2006 … subject to background and reference checks."

In the time between first having the idea in March to my first day at camp in June, I went through a series of mind-sets. First, I figured it would be a lark, like learning to fly a helicopter. Then I began to really want it. After being accepted, I was elated for a day, and then I began to wonder, "Can you actually do this? Let's get real; communicating with kids is not something you're good at – and never were. Plus, you can't hear anything anybody says, especially a kid." The 49-page camp manual increased my anxiety. It talks about values and culture, standards of volunteer work and effectiveness, a typical day (basically 16 hours), do's and don'ts, a lengthy description of maintaining control while supporting the children, a summary of diseases along with things to watch out for and what to do, staff exposure to disease (there are latex gloves and disinfectant soap dispensers everywhere), how to handle behavior problems, safety and emergencies, lost camper procedures, thunderstorms and blackouts, and information on bat rabies. Driving down to Ashford, I had that jangling feeling where you're fighting off terror by just going ahead like a robot.

The first thing that happened was a car full of staff persons stopped to let me by the (unmanned) gatehouse. Their windows went down as they waved, said hello, and asked if I needed directions, with lots of smiles. I felt better. All along the drive, people in golf carts (the only vehicles allowed in camp) waved. I burst into the administrative building and practically yelled, "I'm a new volunteer," as if that would establish that I wasn't nervous. "You must be Sam," said Sarah Smithson, the director of volunteers. So the tone was set: You're fine, we're fine, everything will be OK.

There was a camp tour for new volunteers at 2 p.m. and an orientation from 3 to 5:30 that reviewed much of the camp manual. My notes say, "Be forceful but supportive, never handle a child, never raise your voice, never show anger." This definitely applied to me. At 5:30 (the regular dinner hour) we had a three-star dinner (really): fish, asparagus, and salad prepared by the longtime chef, Charlotte. Even when cooking for the entire camp (more than 250 persons) the meals were astonishingly good. After dinner there was an hour-long medical orientation conducted by the infirmary staff. Later, at our first cabin meeting, a nurse came to give us a medical briefing on each of our eight campers (likelihood of seizures, medication, etc).

My session was exclusively for children with sickle cell anemia. This is an inherited blood disorder in which normal red blood cells harden into sickle shaped cells that impede blood flow, especially in small arteries, thereby depriving various vital parts of the body of oxygen, and causing severe pain and damage to organs, muscles, and bones. The average life expectancy of those having sickle cell anemia is 40. During my week at the camp, one child lost consciousness (in the pool, where he was spotted immediately – an example of effective surveillance) and was taken to a hospital. In my cabin, incontinence (a result of the disease) was a nightly event. I did not observe behavior problems arising from sickle cell discomfort, but there were low-energy and low-engagement episodes on the part of several boys.

Camp operations

The camp operates on many levels. The baseline is safety and health. Responsibility for these falls to the counselors: We were to know where all eight campers, divided among the five of us in various ways during the day, were at all times and to watch for signs of health problems and medical needs. In the case of sickle cell, drinking a lot of water all day long is a must. The infirmary is always there, no appointment needed. Inside a sign says, "Hug your doctor. This is the law."

After safety and health comes fun – in the sense of laughter, but also in the sense of learning and growing. Whimsy is everywhere you look: totem poles with faces you won't see anywhere else (bandits, pelicans, pirates, etc.); signs that say things like, "Beware of scary swamp critters"; a 1,000-square-foot tree house 40 feet in the air with a roof, wraparound porch, and a very long, five-foot-wide wheelchair-accessible ramp, all strongly anchored in a grove of large trees. The context is positive adult-child relationships in which guidance is provided and boundaries are established. This is the usual balancing act required of any parent, except that these children have been through a lot. Most have had trouble keeping up at school, have missed out on sports, have coped with physical trauma, have lived with frustration and disappointment, and may have fallen behind developmentally in terms of learning, language, social behavior, and coordination.

All of the boys in my cabin were 11 years old, except one who was 10. If I had come across this group in another setting, I would not have seen anything other than a bunch of outgoing, fully engaged pre-teenagers. Collectively, they participated with enthusiasm in all camp activities that they could. One boy coped heroically with joint discomfort throughout the week, but missed only a few events. Among the others were episodes of fatigue, joint pain, and stomachache, sometimes in combination. They would visit the infirmary but nearly always chose to rejoin the group, if only to watch. All the boys had daily medications, brought to them at mealtime by the nurses. The camp policy on meals is to not make demands. If a camper did not want to have a certain dish, a substitute was available and offered. A loss of appetite was dealt with gently, and an extensive snack bar was always open to make up for missed meals. I cannot leave the subject of the boys without mentioning the phenomenal skill of one of them in playing catch. He could wing a ball 25 yards or more so that it would come in chest high, without your moving either foot.

Working with the campers

When it comes to a self-appraisal of my own work with the children, I would have to accept a low mark. I just was not able to establish good one-on-one communication with the campers. I watched my fellow counselors talking or playing cards and other games with the kids, and it seemed to me that they did get to know each other. My hearing did not help, but I think there was more to it than that. I have talked about this with other volunteer counselors and they have said, "Sam, what about the age difference? You were fine; you were wonderful to be there." Well, maybe, but it bothers me. Another worry is that in one case, I could not dissuade two of the boys who were setting up to have a physical fight on the fishing dock. In this case a young counselor stepped in and quietly calmed everything down. I have no idea how he did it. I thanked him, and my anxiety index shot up to maximum. Then there was the infirmary incident. Without going into details, I exploded at the head doctor of the camp about 8 one evening saying something like, "Either give him the pain medicine or don't give it to him. But don't keep us waiting for an hour like you did last night, because I can't control the kid for that long out in the waiting room where he is going to start a fight with another kid." The problem was solved when another counselor offered to take the second kid back to my cabin, and then they gave my kid some kind of pain medication in about 10 minutes. I went around to apologize to the doctor and two nurses who had witnessed the scene I made. In the morning at breakfast another nurse said, "You made quite a hit last night." I said, "You mean when I lost it?" No, she said, "When you apologized to everyone." The bottom line on this is: I do not think the camp administration would clamor to get me back another time.

Fun and games – and goodbye

The typical day is active and planned in detail. It begins with a 7 a.m. pre-breakfast activity for early risers – a one-hour visit to the arts and crafts shops, the gym, the archery range, etc. Breakfast is at 8:30. All meals are extravaganzas. There is no other way to describe what happens. There is good food, as mentioned earlier. There is music, provided by a multitalented keyboard musician. There are dancing, impromptu conga lines, announcements, awards, medications distributed by nurses, singing from a book of over 100 songs, two clowns who appear in ever-changing costumes, and more. This all takes place in a huge, round barn with 18 tables for 14 persons arranged like spokes, leaving the center area open for mayhem. Everyone exits, table by table, to the music of "When the Saints Go Marching In."

After cabin cleanup are the morning activities (swimming, fishing, horses, theatre, sports, etc.), rotated so that each day is different for six days. Lunch is a repeat of breakfast. Following a siesta, the afternoon offers campers a choice among the basic activities so that a sport or a creative project can be pursued, along with new choices such as a clown workshop or acting lessons. Finally there is dinner, which is more of the same chaos, only doubled, then quiet time in the cabins with "cabin chat" (reflective talk by campers and counselors) and lights out by 9:30 p.m.

Each of the nine weeklong camp sessions has a theme (as in Camelot, Pirates of the Caribbean, Harry Potter, Hollywood, etc.). Ours was Mardi Gras. Ah, yes, where to begin! Maybe the event that will explain it all was the Mardi Gras parade. There are many golf carts around to transport campers who need help getting from one place to another. Some of the golf carts were transformed into floats. The kids decided what the floats would represent, and did the work to convert the golf carts. At one float meeting, someone yelled "Nemo," and the motion was carried by popular acclaim. What does Nemo have to do with Mardi Gras? The right answer is: "Everything." So they turned a four-passenger, deluxe golf cart into Nemo. Did it look like Nemo? Let me put it this way: It was beautiful. The winning float was the dragon. As it came into view, I asked a staff person, "What is that?" "A dragon," he said. To me it looked a lot like someone had driven the cart through the front window of a discount drug store and out the back door. Special mention went to a snorting monster. This was a cart with a fake hood that had been fixed so that it opened and closed, like a fiery jaw, with paper teeth and flashing eyes (the headlights). On other nights Mardi Gras was observed via a Bourbon Street party (fortune-telling, magic, hurricane drinks, a throw game to dunk your counselor, etc.), a masked ball, and so on.

By far the premier evening event was Stage Night: 36 acts put on by the children themselves. There were belly dancers, a hula hoop trio, a runway fashion show, a harmonica solo, juggling, a drum piece, a piano recital, a rap duo, a step-dance ensemble, and much, much more. It was extraordinary, really. First prize went to a little guy impersonating a sultry, husky-voiced, femme fatale-type in the mode of, say, Marlene Dietrich. The curtains parted; for a moment he stood upstage, motionless, somewhat lost in an evening dress a little too large for him, a hat that shaded his eyes just so, a fluffy black boa. Then he advanced, slowly, demurely, eyes fixed on the audience; then he absolutely nailed the part with words I cannot remember. He walked away with the show. If he goes into acting, he has a great future.

I have to mention the Hole in the Wall 500. This is an outgrowth of Paul Newman's Formula racing role in the film, "Winning." Little cars, kitchen matchbox-size, are made by campers in the woodshop (one of the boys in my cabin made five of them – he also caught 33 fish in one day, but that is another story). Other than having four wheels, some of these might not be recognizable as cars at first glance. Others, however, are extreme, ultra-macho, unmistakable track brutes. To test their performance, a track is erected, resembling a miniature Olympic ski jump. A NASCAR announcer warms up the audience with names of contenders (campers) and track histories (invented). Track officials (counselors) in full, bright red racing suits take over, cars are released at the track top, and each of the 20 contestants wins in one category or another. An actual car (a customized Mustang, I think) is present, courtesy of a camp friend. A spectacular, coffee table racecar book is given to all the winning contestants. This is in the same spirit as awards night, the final night of camp, when every child (all 120 of them) wins an award.

On the final morning, buses came from New York, New Haven, Hartford, Providence, and Boston to take the kids home. These are full-size, Greyhound-style buses. The children are carefully logged in to each bus from a travel roster. A few staff persons go with them. The buses are surrounded by counselors, all of us in our uniform of light blue polo shirts. There is waving, kisses are blown, snatches of songs are sung, little heads are in every window waving back. Then the air brakes are released, with that great whoosh sound. The big door closes, the engine noise hums louder, the bus moves very slowly away, down the one-lane drive, and disappears. Of course, I burst into tears. A counselor put an arm around me. "It's OK," she said. "We know how you feel." END

Samuel A. Hartwell '52 retired in 1997 from the G.S. Blodgett Corp. of Burlington, Vt., where he was co-owner and co-chairman. He continues to be active as co-founder and chairman emeritus of STRIVE, a nonprofit employment service for young urban men and women with training centers in 17 U.S. cities and five overseas. He and his wife, Anne, live in Framingham, Mass.