Newman’s question, and a camp’s resounding answer
June 22, 2012
By Doug Milne/PGA TOUR Staff
HARTFORD, Conn.-- At first, he panicked. “What if no one shows?” he asked out loud to no one in particular. “We built this for the kids, and what if they don’t come?”
Actor-turned-philanthropist Paul Newman, whose visionary mind had just opened the doors in Ashford, Conn., to the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp for kids with life-threatening illnesses, seemingly had reason for concern. The fact was, Newman’s vision was slow out of the gate. But that was 25 years ago.
In 1988, a 27 year-old Mark Brooks won his first of seven PGA TOUR titles at what was then called the Sammy Davis, Jr.-Greater Hartford Open, George H.W. Bush defeated Michael Dukakis to become the 41st President of the United States and Dustin Hoffman set the box office on fire with his performance in “Rain Man.” The cost of a ticket to see “Rain Man” in 1988: $3.50. Thanks to that year, those three careers were extended. Nineteen-eighty-eight was also a year when lives were extended. Quiet children wanted to come, and they learned to go with a bang.
On a much different measuring stick, 1988 was significant for a nascent endeavor which, quite frankly, drew significantly less attention. That year, a seed was planted with the intention of reaching a humble few, a few with a common goal. But nonetheless, it was a few with life-changing dreams beyond the boundaries of any Hollywood creation. And today—25 years later—the kids did come, and that seed has blossomed into a thriving realization where the once unimaginable is now the paved-in-gold ground for newer and bigger dreams.
When Jimmy Canton lost his best friend to cancer at a young age, his direction in life became clear. Shortly after college, fate found him working as a volunteer in 1988 alongside Newman with the Hole in the Wall Gang, a place Newman designated as 100 percent free of fees, supported largely by funds raised from many sources, including the Travelers Championship. Canton remembers that experience well. He was among the few in the room when Newman asked the question: “What if no-one shows?”
“When I arrived, the construction crews had had just left hours earlier—literally,” Canton reflected. ”We were picking up nails, scrubbing off the caulking from around the toilets. As a staff, we were wondering how the day would unfold. We knew that day that the first year held in it the potential to start a tradition.”
It turned into an extraordinary summer.
“At first, Mr. Newman was really disappointed,” Canton remembered. “He was concerned [kids] weren’t going to come. People had to assure him that these are very sick children, and the families really needed to build a sense of trust.”
Within three years, the trust was intact, and the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp was at full capacity. The first summer, it started with 90 children. It ended with 288. Today it will host 1,100 for the summer, as well as an additional 1,500 others for the fall and spring programs. The Hole in the Wall Gang also operate in 20 related hospitals between Boston and New York, where nearly 20,000 children are treated. Camp is brought to them.
An idea built on hope is today the driving force. The philosophy of the Camp is to provide a different kind of healing. It’s a place that celebrates the fun, friendship and spirit of childhood. Bonds are conceived and cemented. Opportunity for these children is nurtured in the mind and placed before them. For 25 years, the goal of the Hole in the Wall Gang has been to afford every kid the chance to experience the wide world of possibilities.
Today, a quarter of a century after he began as a volunteer, Canton now serves as the Camp’s CEO.
“The kids are just so happy to be there,” he said. “Medically, they are taken care of. We kept them safe, so they can just play. Between the opportunity to just play and connect with one another, they make all the joy. That’s our camp. Our greatest healing ingredient is that they have one another.”
The biggest gift to these campers is the gift of each other, others who get it. Most of the attendees have felt marginalized, ostracized, isolated because of their conditions. In many cases, they are the last to be chosen to participate in anything if they can even participate at all.
“For them to be surrounded by 120 other children who do get it opens doors they never knew possible,” Canton said. Simply, there’s strength in numbers.
So now, as Canton and his staff reflect on 25 beautiful years, they can’t help but think like the kids they serve; they look at the next 25 with confidence, with a smile. “It’s deep, profound and lasting to know you are a part of this movement,” he said. “When the children come to us, they carry their pain with them. They have their fears, trepidations, burdens. You slowly teach them how to let it go.”
For 25 years, the Camp hasn’t promised a cure for the sicknesses that have claimed these children’s bodies, but they have found an avenue by which they can liberate their hearts and minds. When you can think of tomorrow, there’s always a way to get there.
“I never thought I’d see this day. The first year seems like just yesterday,” Canton reflected. “I’ve seen generations come through now. Kids are growing through the process. It’s been an awesome thing. Outside of my family, this has been the greatest ride of my life.”
The children did come, and they keep coming. But more importantly, they go. They go and grow in a world rightfully theirs. And no matter how—or when—they will get there. One day, they will.
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