“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.’’
I’m a sucker for holiday movies, especially those in which a lost cause is won, a humble hero is celebrated, a hardened heart is softened. I snuffle when kindness arrives without fanfare, when courage and generosity prevail. As moving and heartwarming as those moments are on film, true compassion as practiced by real people is even more powerful. Even in the darkest moments, there are folks who somehow find the will to do good, and in enduring despite the longest of odds, they restore my faith in … well … in all of us.
So much of value is at risk so much of the time; consider the work done by The Sierra Club, The Heifer Project, The International Rescue Project, The United Way, The Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, Direct Relief, Habitat for Humanity, Make-A-Wish Foundation, and countless other effective agencies It takes only a moment to make a gift of support to any of these, or any of another hundred more; and no more than a moment to make the gift in the name of a friend or loved one who doesn’t really need the gift purchased at the last-minute.
As it has to many families, terrifying challenge has on occasion come to mine; without telling a story that is not mine to tell, it happened that I was privileged to visit a session of The Hole in the Wall Camp, a remarkable facility dedicated to providing “a different kind of healing” to seriously ill children and their siblings.” Founded and funded by Paul Newman in 1988, the camp’s facilities are designed to allow children facing dramatic illness the opportunity to find fun, adventure, and community in a setting providing extensive medical support. Children with cancer, hemophilia, sickle-cell anemia, HIV/AIDS, metabolic illness and blood disorders find themselves in a setting that offers swimming, horseback riding, sing-along campfires, archery , arts, crafts, music, theater, woodworking, even a high-ropes adventure course. A staff of physicians is on hand; medical facilities are extensive, but doctors wear t-shirts and shorts; nurses and counselors are indistinguishable. And, of course, there is no charge to any of the participants, more than 50% of whom are children of color.
The camp itself is set in rolling farmland in northeast Connecticut, about forty-five minutes from Hartford. The buildings have been designed with the security of seriously ill children in mind. For example, residential cabins have been built around a circular expanse of lawn; it’s lovely, and it provides a staging area should a child need to be air-lifted to emergency care. The infirmary is anything but institutional; it’s called “The OK Corral”, and seems to have been lifted from a tumbleweed-ridden western town.
I’m tempted to write at length about the camp’s many extraordinary programs, including outreach to hospitals, outreach to parents and siblings, and “The Hero’s Journey”, a seven-day wilderness adventure program for teens too old to attend the camp, but at the end of a remarkable visit to the camp, I came away most impressed by the camp’s young counselors. I met them as they travelled with their charges to activities, some carrying a child, each holding a child’s hand. I met them in the dining hall, attending to each child’s needs, rising to sing their cabin’s spirited song, standing to perform a silly stunt or remarkable talent. Their energy was seemingly inexhaustible; their good humor contagious. Against all odds, the prevailing emotion throughout the day was joy.
I wondered how the camp’s director had found these remarkable people, most of whom appeared to be of college age. Later, as I read testimonials that campers, parents, and counselors had written about their experience at the camp, I began to realize than many had a personal stake in the camp’s mission.
As surprised as I was by the joy I felt throughout my visit, an even less expected lesson was in learning that the camp provided a setting in which seriously ill children might be relieved of responsibility for appearing seriously ill. A camper described his experience as liberating because he was able to see himself as something other than a victim. ” There’s no other place in the world where I can sing at the top of my lungs, jump off a tower knowing that nothing would ever happen to me, feel love the second I entered, and most importantly, not be made into an awkward embarrassment because I had leukemia.”
As to the counselors, many of them had been campers or siblings of campers. “I was the only long-term survivor in my chemo class of 18, and Camp was the only place in the world where I saw that kids like me not only survived, but thrived.” Another wrote, “In 2007, (my brother) died when he was 10. I went back to Camp that summer, more scared than ever and certainly more fragile than the past. I met campers who had also lost their siblings and shared the stripping, raw sentiment of such an unfair event. My senior camper week filled me, and I left Camp with a realization that I was in none of this alone. I thought: I will never experience anything like this again.” At the end of a summer as a counselor, this sibling wrote, “After this summer, I have no words. Once again, I continue to think: I will never experience anything like this ever again.”
Campers and counselors, the seriously ill, their siblings and families, because of The Hole In the Wall Camp, they are not alone.
There are other equally transformative initiatives at work, for children of course, each of which is both dependent upon and deserving of support. A brief list of those would include Save the Children, the Shriners Hospitals, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the Ronald McDonald House Charities, and SOS Children’s Villages. Our dog-centered lives bring us in contact with a number of agencies providing services to children; one of the most interesting is Canines for Disabled Kids, a relatively newly established organization and one that could use some help in getting great dogs to kids with disabilities.
It isn’t getting any easier to make a difference in the world, but it is remarkably easy to assist those who believe in doing all that they can, one child at a time. We love our friends, and we love to give; why not honor the people we love by honoring those who work for the benefit of children?