Monday, July 15, 2013

#351 Raise A Little Hell

Last month I went to summer camp.  It had all the typical activities – horseback riding, woodshop, archery, boating and fishing, arts and crafts.  But it was unlike any camp I had ever been to. 

This camp focuses on safety, respect and love.  And they mean it. 

I did not attend as a camper.  I attended as a volunteer counselor.  This camp is The Hole In The Wall Gang Camp, founded in 1988 by Paul Newman. 

I heard about Hole in the Wall from seeing a segment on CBS Sunday morning last year.  After watching it I thought, “I want to go to there!”  I submitted an application in January (got my three recommendation letters and required shots) and was accepted in April.  There is an 80 percent return rate for female volunteers so I was very lucky to get in.  The camp director mentioned this at the camp volunteer breakfast, comparing a new female volunteer at camp to seeing a leprechaun.  I muttered aloud, “I’m no leprechaun!” and everyone laughed. 

Hole in the Wall accepts kids who cannot attend any other kind of camp due to a diagnosis of cancer, a serious blood disease, acquired or hereditary immune disorder or metabolic disease.  Camp runs Fridays to Thursdays for nine weeks in the summer.  My week was Session 2.  Campers attend for free, and siblings are welcome.  One hundred sixteen kids, age 7-14, were in Session 2.  My cabin had eight girls ages 9-10.  Some of my girls were siblings of other sick campers and no medical issues.  We received information about our cabin kids the night before they arrived so we knew what to look out for. 
Even though you understand that the vast majority of kids have medical issues, you wouldn’t know it by looking at most of them.  They look like regular kids at camp, and we treat them like regular kids at camp.  That is why they love this camp.  Yes, we pay special attention to their medical needs and have nurses around, and an infirmary, but the focus is on them having an awesome time.  How appropriate that the 2013 camp theme, is “The Road to Awesome”. 

Each day is structured fairly the same, with some variation (and deference to weather). 

  • 8:30 a.m.               Breakfast.
  • 9:30 a.m.               Cabin cleanup – each girl rotates doing a chore. 
  • 10 a.m.                  Morning programs - each unit goes to a different morning program each  day.    For background, there are five units within the camp structure and each unit is a different color.  There are three cabins per unit. 
  • 12:30 p.m.             Lunch.
  • 2 to 3 p.m.             Rest hour.
  • 3:30 to 5:30           Kids choice of activity.  They write down their choices at lunch and are randomly picked. 
  • 5:30 p.m.               Dinner. 
  • Approx. 7 p.m.      Evening activity (campfire, stage night, awards). 
  • 9:30 p.m.               Bed time (older campers at 10 p.m.).  The bedtime routine consists of the usual brushing teeth, etc. and then playing some calm, quiet games.  Then cabin chat (I will explain more about this later). 
Meal time is very structured.  The kids sit at assigned tables at the dining hall and stay there.  Their cabin counselors bring their food to them.  Great idea, but tiring.  You finally sit down to eat and someone needs a drink or a bagel (they love bagels!).  I am a slow eater but learned to eat quickly this week.  On a side note, I was able to try every kind of Newman’s Own cereal, salad dressing, and juice.  I didn’t try the popcorn.

Paul Newman died in 2008, but his spirit definitely lives on at camp.  Before meals, “grace” is a song that everyone sings together:

This camp’s been good to me.
This camp’s been good to me.
Thank you, Paul, for this hole in the wall.
This camp’s been good to me. 

A collage photo is on the side of the sports and recreation building, comprised of the hundreds of kids who have attended camp.  He is watching over us all. 
I heard a story that he used to visit the camp and sit with the kids at meals.  I’m sure they didn’t know he was a famous actor, just a nice man who started the camp.  During one meal, a kid looked at a juice carton on the table (with Newman’s face on it) and then looked at Paul and asked, “Are you lost?”

I do have to mention that after each meal there is singing and dancing.  Popular songs are “Ice Cream and Cake” and “Stars In The Sky”.  Most of the songs have hand motions.  I find it interesting that they dance around after filling bellies with food, but I did not see anyone toss their meal.  I enjoyed the after-meal festivities for the most part but admit after about three days I refused to dance or sing the “Ice Cream and Cake” song.  It got to the point that one night, while walking back to LuLu’s Lodge, I found myself walking to the beat of “ice cream and cake cake cake”.  OMG. 

The morning programs make up the bulk of the activity at camp, and every camper gets to participate(weather permitting).

Adventure (for the older campers).  This includes a rock-climbing wall and zip line. 


Arts and crafts, woodshop and the cooking zone are in these buildings. 

Boating and fishing.

Horseback riding. 


In the afternoons the kids can choose from the main programs and some others:  guitar, music, sports and rec and theater. 

One of the most popular programs is the pool.  It’s heated to around 85 degrees to accommodate the sickle cell kids, who are not supposed to be cold.  I soon learned that if the air temperature is too low, the pool is not an option for the entire unit.  They wouldn’t make the sickle cell kids sit out or do something else, they have everyone do the same thing.  Luckily for us, Saturday was a warm, sunny day.  One of the girls who didn’t even get in the pool last year due to her skin allergies was like a fish this year and ended up swimming in the deep end (from one end to the other) to get her official swimming bracelet.  That’s a really big deal for the kids. 

Boating and fishing is another fun program.  That’s where I met Marshall, another volunteer, who has been at camp for many years and is the boating and fishing expert.  He used to run his own camp in Michigan before he started volunteering at Hole in the Wall.  We were able to have a nice chat while the kids patiently fished.  He had finished law school when he got the opportunity to buy land in Michigan along Crystal Lake.  When he asked his father for a loan, his father asked him when he was going to grow up.  Marshall replied, “Never.”  He is true to his word, helping kids of all ages catch fish at age 75. 

The oldest age group of campers is the only one that is allowed to do the rock wall and the zip line.  Camp does allow volunteers to do this one morning each week.  We met at 7:30 a.m. Sunday for our adventure “baptism.”  Safety is No. 1 so after donning the safety equipment, I made it up the wall.  I had never done a zip line before.  It was incredible!  Definitely worth getting up extra early. 
Unlike the morning program, where the unit goes together with all counselors, in the afternoon everyone divvies up and goes to separate programs dependent on what the kids selected.  One day I had a choice, without knowing which girl I was going with, and chose guitar.  One of my girls chose that and when we got there she was the only camper.  Usually the counselors do not participate fully in the program, they just help the kids out as needed (we do get in the pool).  Since she was the only camper, the “guitar guy” asked if I wanted to play too.  Of course!  He gave us each a small, three-string guitar with color-coded stickers for the notes.  After two hours, we had learned four songs (and I had one sore pointer finger).  We went back the next day for more practice and were asked to play with the guitar guy in stage night Tuesday.  Just my girl, me and another counselor who would sing. 

Let me back up a bit and say that the girl (I will call her Susie – not her real name) had backed out of two activities with her cabin mates already.  The girls are big on playing cups and she had practiced with them, but backed out of the kids campfire show Sunday night.  She also backed out of the clown skit for stage night.  I admit I would not have been surprised if she had backed out of the guitar.  We went backstage to get our guitars and get ready to go onstage.  She asked, “What if I mess up?”  I told her to just keep strumming and catch up on the next song verse.  She said she was scared and I told her I was too, but that we had practiced and knew the song, and we would be fine.  We made it onstage and she was great!!  We played The Lion Sleeps Tonight.  We weren’t perfect, but we had fun and I was incredibly proud of her.  The smile on her face as we walked off the stage was priceless.  I pulled her aside before we went back to our seats and told her to remember this moment.  She was nervous, but she had practiced and prepared herself and look what she did!  I told her not to let fear keep her from doing things like this, that she could accomplish a lot by just getting out there and doing things.  Definitely my highlight of the week. 

I have to add that some of my other girls played the cups and sang the cups song, and were awesome as well.  I admit I had never done the cups nor heard the song.  I can now kind-of do cups and whenever I hear the cup song on the radio I smile thinking about all of my girls. 

I could write all day about this camp, but will cover just one more topic – cabin chat.  Once the kids are in their beds and calmed down, we turn down the lights and light a candle that is placed in the middle of the floor.  Each time the main counselor goes through the rules of cabin chat (it sounds like the rules to fight club). 

  1. What is said in cabin chat stays in cabin chat. 
  2. One person speaks at a time. 
  3. Challenge by choice (you don’t have to talk if you don’t want to).
  4. The response to any comment is either snapping your fingers or rubbing your hands together. 
Then the counselor asks a question.  Ours ranged from “If you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would you have dinner with, where, and what would you eat?” to “What was the most fun thing you did today?”  Lots of girls wanted to have dinner with Taylor Swift. 

It’s very cool to listen to what these girls have to say.  The voices pop up from all over the room and some girls end up with multiple answers.  During the last night of camp, the question was, “If you could create a world, what kind of world would it be?”  More than one said they would create a world just like camp.  Others said they wanted a world where no one was sick or sad. 

Cabin chat lasts about 10 to 15 minutes or however long it takes them to say what they want.  After they are done, the counselors say goodnight to each of the campers.  The “rule” of saying goodnight is that when the counselor comes around, they kid can give them a hug, a high five or a thumbs up.  Whatever they are comfortable with.  Each night I got a hug from all but one, who gave me a high five.  I was cool with that.  On the last night, I got a hug.  Yes!! 

I had an early flight the next morning so I missed the parents picking them up.  Maybe it was for the best.  I may have been a bit emotional.  As I walked down the concourse to my gate I did tear up a little.  I missed them already! 

There is not much time to socialize with other counselors, but I did meet some wonderful people.  My cabin counselors Steff, Charlotte, Joanne and Hillary.  Kelsi, Stef, and Brandi.  Nurses Rachael and Wendy.  My roommate Jackie.  My suite mates Michelle and Nancy.  Jeffrey the Fart (we got clown nicknames during the week).  John the bicyclist (check out the Angel Ride).  Bink and Moo Cha Cha (from Big Apple Clowns).  Ellen the volunteer coordinator (“don’t be creepy”).  Matty the camp director – if anyone has passion for their job, it’s him.  And my hat is off to all the full time counselors.  These “kids” are in or just out of college and basically run the place.  They have extensive training and it shows.  Simply amazing.  I still can’t believe they do this for nine weeks.  In-a-row.  They must be singing “Ice Cream and Cake” for months after camp ends. 

I feel truly blessed to have been a small part of this camp for one week, especially during its 25th anniversary year.  I want to be part of the 80 percent of women who come back.  This camp has definitely been good to me and I pray that it continues to be good to kids of all ages for many years to come. 

Thank you, Paul, for this hole in the wall. 

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