Paul Newman founded The Hole in the Wall Camp in 1988 to offer children with serious medical conditions – cancer, sickle cell anemia, hemophilia and HIV/AIDS – the opportunity to share summer camp experiences with kids just like them. For many this was a new experience. In fact, many “had never slept away from their parents” Canton said.
Today 120 children enjoy each of nine one week sessions. The campers are supported by a staff of 100 – counselors, many of whom are former campers; medical professionals, some of whom are doctors and nurses volunteering their time; and a fully equipped infirmary capable of meeting any medical need.
Newman created The Hole in the Wall Camp as a place where kids who “suffer enough alienation and exclusion” could receive “a different kind of healing” and “raise a little hell.” Canton said many people visit the Camp expecting to see a “sad place,” but what they see is “kids laughing and causing mischief.” Just kids being kids.
The Camp is unique because children with very serious illnesses accept and get accepted by their peers – for many it’s the first time. For some it’s the first time they’ve spent time with others like them. For most, Canton said it’s being “transported to a fantasy place.”
Canton showed a video about Zak, a ‘tween hemophiliac who needed a daily infusion to keep his illness in check. He had refused to do it himself until he came to the Camp and met a counselor with the same diagnosis who let the younger boy practice on him. Today he’s self-sufficient.
The Camp teaches them they can. They gain “healing power from others who have walked their walk.” Campers do many of the same things all campers do – arts and crafts, archery, swimming, boating and fishing (a Paul Newman favorite), computers, photography, theater, as well as tennis, basketball and mini-golf. They can even record their own CDs.
Some of the activities are adapted to make them available to more campers. The kids learn to pull together, they help the more challenged of their new friends, and they see they can do things they didn’t know they could.
Canton added that “if we fail to include, we as staff, have failed.”
Starting as a single camp in Ashford, Connecticut for 288 children in the northeast, The Hole in the Wall has built 13 others – eight in the U.S. And as they added summer camps they sought opportunities to bring their programs to more children.
Today The Hole in the Wall serves over 20,000 seriously ill children year round – in camps, in hospitals, in school and at home. It offers fall through spring programs for campers and their families at the Camp. It has 20 counselors leading the Hospital Outreach Program, bringing the “hopeful, playful spirit of Camp to children and families in a hospital setting.” And it seeks to bring joy and relief to children at home in the final throes of their illnesses.
The Connecticut camp runs on a $12 million annual budget. Over 50 percent is provided by individuals, the remainder from corporations, foundations and organizations. Newman’s Own was its founder, but today provides less than one percent because Newman wanted the Camp to be sustainable even if the original funding were not available.
Y’s Man Dan Kail, who had been active at the camp and is now a Hole in the Wall Gang Board member added to Canton’s remarks. He called working at the Camp a “profound experience” and added “as adults we live in a competitive world, at camp the world changes as counselors transport themselves to the kids, we want them to have a good time.”
Kail noted that for all the good the Camp did from the very beginning “Paul had to learn to ask for money.”
Canton closed by appealing for support to an audience glued to his message, saying “we would not be where we are if it were not for the people of Westport.”
For those interested in learning more about The Hole in the Wall Gang, visit their website: http://www.holeinthewallgang.org/Page.aspx?pid=471
Canton and Kail photos by Bill Balch; Newman photo credit unknown