Summertime of Our Lives

by Suzanne Walters Gray MFA ’04

Hole in the Wall Gang Camp

Most summer camps include hiking, swimming, horseback riding, and crafts. Very few offer chemotherapy as well.

But the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, in northeastern Connecticut, does. It was founded by Paul Newman in 1988 so that children with cancer and other serious illnesses could “raise a little hell,” and it serves more than 20,000 sick kids and family members every year. His daughter Melissa Newman ’88 is a volunteer counselor at the camp (as well as a member of the board), and most summers she spends a week helping a cabin full of girls have the kind of fun you just can’t have in a hospital.

The camp has special facilities to accommodate the children’s needs, from a full-service medical staff to an easy-entry pool with a submersible wheelchair made of PVC pipe. But to Newman, the camp’s most distinctive—and beneficial—feature is its culture of kindness. Children are quickly indoctrinated into the camp’s supportive atmosphere, where “every interaction is a kind and gentle thing.” For example, at the talent show, “You can get up there and do underarm farts and get as much applause as if you recited Shakespeare.”

Newman’s philosophy as a counselor is to do whatever the campers ask of her, even if it might involve getting sprayed with whipped cream. “Who am I to say no?” she says. “You just say yes to everything.” As a result, she’s given extensive piggyback rides to a 12-year-old who, it turns out, was perfectly capable of walking. She’s let girls braid her hair into cornrows. She’s done the “Shake Your Bushy Tail” dance in front of the entire dining hall—even though she hates dancing in public—because that’s the punishment for entering through the wrong door.

The campers—some of whom have never slept outside their parents’ bedroom—soak it all up. “A few kids have actually said, ‘If I didn’t have cancer, I wouldn’t be able to go to Hole in the Wall.’ That’s how powerful this experience is for them,” Newman says. The prospect of camp can even motivate children to get better: “There are amazing stories about kids who have held on so they could go to camp one more time.”

At the end of the week, Newman is exhausted—and so is her bottle of Advil. But the experience is irreplaceable. And when she’s out in the world and meets a kid in a wheelchair, she no longer sees the disability. She sees someone who would probably rather be climbing the rock wall or riding a pony, even if they might need a little extra help. In other words, a regular kid.