Camper Victoria Saunders loves swimming at The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in the summer. It’s not an activity she usually gets to do.
Living with sickle cell disease, 12-year-old Victoria can’t jump into a cold pool or lake, lest the sudden temperature change triggers a pain crisis. At Hole in the Wall Gang, the pools are heated, meaning no sudden temperature drop — and no crisis.
The heated pools are one of many accommodations the camp, whose Hospital Outreach Program (HOP) brings staff and camp crafts and activities to the bedsides of children at 33 hospitals in the Northeast and Midatlantic, makes to ensure each of its campers, who have severe and chronic diseases, have a joyful camp experience.
In 2024, the HOP program will expand to the DMV with a regional office in Silver Spring, Maryland and serve additional hospital locations in the Washington, D.C. metro area to complement a second summer camp location on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
That means campers such as Victoria, who lives in Wilmington, Delaware, only have to travel about an hour-and-a-half to camp rather than almost five hours to Hole in the Wall Gang’s current Ashford, Connecticut location. The camp will also be able to increase the number of campers it serves each year. It presently serves about 200 children between ages 7-15.
What’s in a Camp?
The tradition of summer camp is longstanding for children of all ages, backgrounds and abilities. It’s seen by many families as an essential stepping stone for their child to come into their own. No doubt the camp experience has myriad benefits, but why is it especially significant to children with chronic health conditions?
Children with serious illnesses may experience isolation from their peers and have trouble developing skills in friendship, or be rejected by their peers. The stress, exhaustion or fear of an impending health crisis not only affects the mental health of the child, but also of their parents and siblings.
Camps like Hole in the Wall Gang serve to soften those experiences by letting kids just be themselves, meet other kids who know what they’re going through and not worry if they will have the accommodations they need.
“You go away to camp, and you’re meeting all new people, meeting new counselors, new kids that you’re bunking with,” says Nicole Davis, Victoria’s mother. “Victoria is very open, very kind and I just love the way that came from a little bit of camp. She’s not afraid to open herself up to new things and just talk and meet new people.”
Hole in the Wall Gang Camp was founded in 1988 by Paul Newman. The actor and philanthropist was “acutely aware of how fortunate he was, how he was in the right place at the right time,” says Hole in the Wall Gang Camp CEO Jimmy Canton of Newman. “He was given looks that he wasn’t responsible for, and he wanted to pay that back. He was very moved by children who just are dealt a very bad hand. He just wanted them to experience what life could be like: the beauty of life, love, friendship, beauty, outdoors, play, ‘raising a little hell.”
Find a Camp Near You
The feelings of belonging and fun instilled by Hole in the Wall Gang aren’t exclusive to its soon-to-be two locations and hospital outreach services. Camps throughout the Mid-Atlantic and beyond provide similar experiences for children with serious illnesses or disabilities.
“Because our children are sensitive and vulnerable, having a safe place that is specialized and attentive to them is very important,” says Andrew Hubner, executive director of Auburn Schools, which hosts Camp Aristotle at its locations in Fairfax, Virginia and Silver Spring, Maryland. The camp serves children with autism, ADHD and learning challenges.
Like Hole in the Wall Gang, Camp Aristotle has staff trained to accommodate each child’s needs and a high staff-to-camper ratio. Similarly, Summer Sensations Camp in Columbia, Maryland, for children with learning differences and sensory processing challenges, pairs children with differing social and language skills in small groups so that “everyone is learning from one another,” the camp ‘s co-director Jolene Williams says.
Other camps also work with campers who do not have a disability alongside those who do. Deaf Camps, Inc., in Knoxville, Maryland, hosts both deaf and hearing kids over the summer.
“The important thing for the hearing campers and the hearing counselors — the importance of including them — is so that they can understand where deaf people and Deaf culture is coming from,” says Amy Norman, a board member and former camper at Deaf Camps, through an interpreter, Louise Rollins, Deaf Camps’ board president.
In addition to fostering a truly inclusive environment, the camp also fosters learning, acceptance and connections across communities.
“We build bridges between the two cultures,” Norman says.
Hole in the Wall Gang builds bridges by having medical staff dress in camp uniforms and having its “OK Corral Infirmary” designed to look like a 19th century mill.
Individualized care, paired with the camp’s non-intimidating setting, helps kids feel at ease with what is a brand new experience for many of them. On the weekend, parents can even exchange tips and connect with other familes, making them feel less alone.
It helps kids with chronic and life-threatening conditions and their families to not feel so different for once—and that is everything.