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Paul Newman's Hole in the Wall Gang

Photograph provided by Hole in the Wall Gang Camp

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This traditional summer respite — a woodsy place with fishing and treehouses — is a safe escape for young campers facing life-threatening illnesses

The roads are dirt; the grass worn along footpaths. The buildings — cabins, administration, dining, rec hall, theater, all — are solidly made of rough wood. The floors create an old-stage pounding when you walk across them. Screen doors slam authentically. The medical building with defibrillators and stethoscopes also stocks Candyland, Battleship and colorful, handpainted murals.

This is the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, the kind of place where you dream about tying up your horse to a hitching post and then knocking back a swinging door. It’s the kind of place where even if you are eight years old and recently paralyzed, you get to ride a horse. “You can have fun,” says one camper, “and not be ashamed of your medical problems.”

It’s close to universal law: Every kid should be able to run the bases or climb a tree. If you’re ten, you should be allowed to scrape your knee without a panic. Maybe just get up, dust yourself off, and get back in the game. But the rules change when you are a child with a life-threatening illness.

The Camp — all sunshine and open air, and protectively nestled in a beautifully wild and quiet patch of northeast Connecticut for the last twenty years — cheats these unfair rules. It gives kids with serious illnesses the chance to put being kids ahead of their medical condition. And it does so for all 1,000 campers who spend a week here each summer.

“The illness of a child is one of the greatest injustices imaginable,” says James Canton, who has been with the camp for twenty years and is now its CEO. But this place, in its own way, draws a line and stares down that injustice. It steals back a bit of childhood, thereby checking the balance of fair and unfair. This is their place to be kids and their time to enjoy childhood.

That message is clear the moment campers arrive. At the entrance to the Camp, a prominent ranch sign reads: “The Fun Starts Here.” It’s a straightforward notice with a straightforward message. It reads like a permission slip to put down your baggage — all the needles and medical center whiteness, all the hushed conversations and stares, all the sleepless nights — and pick up a big ball of mud and squish it in your hands.

The stage is set for a rousing Western adventure. The theme is by design, of course. The name of the camp comes from the highest-grossing Western of all time: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford.

“Like Butch and Sundance,” says Canton, “we explain to the children that the camp is a place where you can be safe from those things chasing you in the outside world. Those problems, those issues that weigh you down, can’t come into our camp once you pass through the bouldered entrance. Just like Butch and Sundance were able to escape the people chasing them as they passed through their Hole in the Wall, and, in that space, find safety, respect and love and leave their cares behind.”

A Look Around
The dining hall, in the center of the camp, is well-known for its circular construction. Tables are arranged like spokes on a bicycle wheel; the center of the room is wide open. The children’s posters hang above like flags at the U.N. “This room is as much about eating as it is about singing,” says Willow Ann Sirch, director of communications. “It’s really joyful.”

When talking about the Camp, its founder, Paul Newman’s voice is raspy in a grandfather-like way: “Sometimes I’ll sneak into the dining hall, and the energy is so surprising coming from those kids. Some of them were in the hospital for a good part of the year. Where does it come from? Well, I don’t ask magicians about their secrets, and I don’t ask these kids either, but there is something magical about this place, a different kind of evening. To have one of the campers come up to me and say, ‘This place, to come back here, this is what I live for.’ Pretty powerful stuff.” Here, his voice cracks.

A tour reveals why children love the Camp. The rec room is next to the dining hall. The entrance is ground level, and the observation area overlooks a large court. Willow says this is where the camp holds one of its big annual fundraisers. “This will be our nineteenth one. It raises about $1 million each year,” she says. During this event, people get to tour the camp and mingle with celebrities, such as Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin. Do the kids know who they are? “Mostly no,” says Willow, brightening. “But most of the campers don’t know who Paul Newman is. They think he’s the guy with the salad dressing. I think he loves that, to be honest.”

The theater is next door. “This is where we hold Awards Night. Throughout the week, we discover a special talent each child has or discovered during the week — maybe the child never swam before but was able to swim in our zero-entry pool,” explains Willow. “That child might get an award for swimming.”

Images of the auditorium filled with children and counselors cheering and clapping for each child in the graduation-like ceremony spring to mind. “Every kid is called up,” says one of counselors, “because every kid has gone through this hero’s journey.”

Here, the camp also holds Stage Night — with about 900 costumes to choose from. “Every single camper performs in some way. All by choice, but they all want to,” says Willow. “Nobody wants to be left out, because everyone sees how much fun it is.”

If you’re wondering if the kids dramatize or sing about what they are going through, medically, she counters, “It’s closer to a regular talent night at any school anywhere. There’s a lot less focus on illness here than you might think.”

Further down a dirt path, campers discover the Tree House. It has a long, winding wheelchair-friendly ramp rising through the branches. At the top, campers enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the ballpark, the sandcastle pit, the forty-four acre lake. “You can see the new dock,” says Willow. “Most of the kids here have to avoid direct sunlight, so most of the dock is shaded. And they like to catch fish. They almost never fail to catch one, which is very exciting to a lot of these kids.”

The miniature golf course is modified to accommodate wheelchairs; so is the hiking trail through the woods. Though flat and smooth, it is left slightly overgrown to capture a deep-in-the-woods feel.