As a mom and a kid’s book writer, I have volunteered for lots of non-profits over the years. None of my volunteering experiences have had such a powerful effect on me as Hole in the Wall Camps. I have volunteered as a “Family Pal” at Family weekends for kids with sickle cell and hemophilia; I volunteered at a special events gala and had the thrill of seeing Paul Newman dress up as Little Orphan Annie, but perhaps my most profound experience was when I volunteered at one of their Hospital Outreach programs in Orlando, Florida. My first impression of the program was, hey this isn’t that much different from volunteer work I did at the Audubon Society. I read a book; we worked with the kids on an art project and created puppets for a Puppet Show. What immediately struck me however, was not only the positive, contagious energy of the staff, but the way they treated the kids with such, respect, love, and caring. Some of the kids were dragging IV Poles with them, some wore scarves around their heads, doctors and nurses came in frequently to poke or prick them, but the Hole in the Wall staff was on a mission – a mission to have fun, and to put on the wackiest puppet show in the history of the Florida Children’s Hospital. As not all children had the energy to get out of bed and join us in the program room, I took the art project to the bedside of “Diego”, a frail boy who looked to be about nine or ten. Diego was surrounded by toys his grandfather had recently brought him- Transformers, Nintendo games, comic books- how was I supposed to compete with this armed only with a box of crayons and a paper bag? I was surprised when Diego pushed aside the Transformers and began drawing on the paper bag. His owl was almost complete when a nurse arrived, announcing it was time for his treatment. A few hours later, staff kids and volunteers were ready to perform the puppet show extravaganza of the century! The Hole in the Wall staff asked if Diego was coming, but his parents and nurses doubted it. They had tried for days to get him out of bed, but he had no interest, his counts were down, they didn’t think he would have the energy. Then a trumpet (actually a kazoo) sounded, announcing the start of the show. I heard a noise and turned around- there was Diego walking into the room, puppet proudly held in his hand. Not being one to normally quote commercials but…. Cost of ticket to Orlando $350, cost of lunch in hospital cafeteria $6.75, watching the smile spread over Diego’s face at the end of the show??? Priceless!! Thank you Association of Hole in the Wall Camps for being the “Transformer” in so many lives.
I have been volunteering at two of the Hole in the Wall Gang Camps for the last fourteen years. I’ve done just about every volunteer job there is: cabin counselor, family pal, parent group facilitator, lifeguard, work-camp leader, musician, fundraising helper. I’ve even run lights for stage night, run the camp store, chopped firewood and washed dishes! Suffice it to say, I’m committed. I think every kid needs a week at camp. Every kid needs a place that is a bit wild and unfettered. Every kid needs to be allowed to sing at the top of his lungs at the dinner table, get her clothes really messy, paddle a boat, ride a horse, build a birdhouse. Kids need these moments—pregnant with promise, fortified with sun and campfire smoke and bug spray and glitter. They’re sort of a fertilizer—makes ‘em grow. Kids living with chronic and life threatening illnesses need this every bit as much as kids without a diagnosis do. Perhaps more. The Hole in the Wall Gang camps give kids that bit of wildness—that opportunity to live loudly & exuberantly—all while quietly tending to their medical needs. In one of my first summers at camp, I was helping a boy with horseback riding. He was 9 or 10, but tiny. As the staff members lifted him off the horse, things fell out of his pockets. I helped him gather his belongings up, while the staff kept us both far from the horse’s hind legs. There was a small wooden star from the woodshop, an acorn, a rubber piece of bait, and a small piece of hay. “These aren’t toys,” he said. As we walked out of the arena, he explained, “I take a remembering box to the hospital with me. I want to put camp in there, too.” I think about that kid a lot, and his pocket of memorabilia, which is really just a pocket full of normal. I think that’s what camp is about: giving kids living with a medical diagnosis a big pocketful of normal to make it through the year ahead.
I cannot speak highly enough about my experience at The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp. As a child with a serious medical condition, "normal" is something you don't get to experience. But at camp, the fact that every kid has an illness makes it normal. The "sick kid" identity most of us are forced to wear in the world becomes null and void, and we get to be just ourselves. Only better, because at camp you can do things you never thought possible, make friends who completely understand you, and be the best version of yourself. I have spent time there each year for 7 years, and every single time I go, I do something I have never done before. From riding a horse, to riding a hot air balloon, reciting a poem on stage, sleeping under the stars, leading a camper on a horse as an LIT, to climbing a 40 foot tower (in the dark once even!). All these incredible opportunities would be nothing without the people, however. The staff are some of the most enthusiastic, warm, funny, loving people you could ever hope to meet. From the nurses, some of the nicest anywhere, who comforted me when I felt sick, to counselors who encouraged me to climb that tower, who high-fived me when I caught a fish. The energy and love of the place are downright inspiring, and I wish there were words for what it feels like to be there. Over and over I hear folks who go to camp who say there is no other word but magic, but I don't know if that even begins to describe it. I look forward to camp all year, and there are thousands of kids around the country and around the world who do the same.