“Some responsibility comes with the privilege of living in this country. If it’s possible, hold your hand out to somebody who has less than you have.”
– Paul Newman
Aaron Baral started vomiting the day before Thanksgiving and could not stop. His doctor thought he was dehydrated. His mother Jill Baral, thought he was exhausted from performing in his high school play. They were both wrong. In November of 2005, Aaron was diagnosed with Leukemia. “My 14-year-old son who just had a fabulous weekend as the star of his high school show turned to me with tears in his eyes and asked me if he was going to die,” recalled Jill.
At a age when most kids are discovering who they are and learning to exert their independence; Aaron’s life was reduced to a 9’x9’ hospital room he could not leave. He was so weak his mother had to feed him and wipe his mouth after he ate. He was no longer able to do the “normal” things that the other kids were doing. There were no more parties, plays, football games or hanging out with friends. He was too sick to attend school and spent over 100 nights in the hospital.
Aaron is a big Red Sox fan. Seven months after he was diagnosed, his family took him to see a baseball game at Fenway Park in Boston. During a home run, he lost consciousness and was rushed to a nearby hospital. He coded five times and went into septic shock. Technically, he was dead. The doctor informed the family there was nothing they could do, but miraculously they were able to stabilize him. “That spring was horrendous. He had infections, surgery, blood transfusions and cranial radiation. They had to put lasers into our son’s head. The blood vessels in his arm and shoulder collapsed, and needed to be replaced,” said Jill. “You could see the fear on his face.”
A few weeks into his various treatments, Aaron’s oncologist made a startling statement. He told the family Aaron was going to have two units of blood today, because tomorrow, he was going to the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp. Jill thought the doctor was nuts. “He was asking me to send my son who died only a month before to camp? What was he thinking?”
But Aaron went. He had only been there for a couple of hours when he was given the honor of being the master of ceremonies for that evening’s theater event, and was climbing a rock wall, even though he was in a wheelchair and without use of his arms and legs. His bunkmates lifted him up to the top of the wall, and when he zoomed down via the zip line, he never felt more alive. “Within two hours he figured out these people got it. They understand. You feel like crap but that doesn’t mean you aren’t the same person you thought you were. At camp, there is nothing you can’t do,” said Jill.
Paul Newman established the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Ashford, Connecticut in 1988 for children and their families living with cancer, hemophilia, sickle cell anemia, HIV and other serious illnesses. His dream was to create a camp to give these kids a respite from their day-to-day medical challenges so they could enjoy being kids again.
Newman named the camp for the hideout his character Butch Cassidy used in the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and designed all the buildings to look like an old western village. Surrounded by 300 acres of woodlands, a 44-acre lake, teepees, wigwams, totem poles and a towering blow up King Kong, these children have access to a wide array of activities that include fishing, boating, arts and crafts, kite flying, singing and dancing, horseback riding, photography and sports. There is also a wheelchair accessible tree house, golf course and swimming pool.
“We can modify all of our activities so every single child is included in every single activity. They have had enough alienation in their life and have sat on the sidelines enough in their life that when they come to camp they don’t experience that,” said chief executive officer, James Canton, who has been with the camp since it’s inception.
During the summer months, 120 children arrive at camp each week. But there are also family weekends in the spring and fall for parents and siblings, and a year round outreach program where camp is brought into the hospitals for children too sick to attend. Safety, love and respect are inherent in the camp culture and there are only three rules to follow: no physical violence, no unsupervised activities, and no killer statements (derogatory comments that serve to tear down instead of build up.) At camp, the children are encouraged to do whatever their heart’s desire because the staff understands how limited their choices have been from dealing with their medical conditions. “We give them choices to restore their hope and to create a sense of autonomy and capability in themselves,” said Canton.
The 24-hour onsite OK Corral Infirmary can handle everything from oxygen tanks to chemotherapy, which allows the children in their varying stages of illnesses to be able to participate. And while the camp has the most compassionate and playful adults they can find to inspire a magical environment that transports the children away from their typical world, the most important and uplifting ingredient is the friendships they develop. Amongst this group of other children, perhaps for the first time in their lives, they can feel normal. “Camp showed me that I was not alone in the battle against cancer, and there were other 15-year-olds going through exactly the same things I was going through,” said Aaron. “Camp allowed me to be a kid, without having to worry about my disease. The counselors never looked at me like the kid with cancer; they looked at me like I was a person.”
When Aaron finally was able to go back to school later that fall for the first time in over a year, he had a renewed sense of self-confidence and an increased self-worth. “I wasn’t afraid to be myself and I haven’t looked back!”
Paul Newman’s legacy has grown from one small camp to include many others both nationally and internationally. Each camp regardless of their location follows the same model where mayhem is embraced, and everyone goes for free.
“Mr. Newman’s approach to life was to create as much chaos as you can, to be whimsical and spontaneous, not to be held back by convention, and to allow your spirit and the spirit of others to soar,” said Canton. “That craziness, that mischief, that celebration of life, hopefully permeates everything we do at camp. We are who we are today, because of who he was. As long as we retain that we are being true his vision and energy for what camp should be.”
Although his salad dressings, snacks, sauces and juices can be found in the dinning hall, less than two percent of the camp’s funding comes from Newman’s Own, a food company founded by Newman in 1982. Newman wanted the camp to be responsible for raising its own operating costs. In addition to monetary and in-kind donations, Team Hole in the Wall has fundraising events that include marathons, walk-a-thons, 5K runs and recently a bike-a-thon in conjunction with Angel Ride, a non-profit organization that supports children with life threatening illnesses.
Regarding a past Angel Ride, participant Jeff Blinderman recalls, “At some point the ride is becomes physically taxing and you get a sense of what these kids must be going through. It is a little bit of a reminder, if you will.”
Aaron went back to camp the following summer and was able to climb the rock wall all by himself and help lift up those who couldn’t. A year after that he was selected to be a leader-in-training and is now a full time cabin counselor. Aaron is twenty and his cancer is in remission. He just completed his sophomore year at the University of Connecticut, is a manger of the women’s basketball team, and maintains a straight A average. He wants to be an athletic director. While the leukemia took a lot, Aaron also gained a lot. He has a lot of perspective and compassion for the children he works with.
“Camp gave him back his life and gave us back our son. When you are that sick think about the future, and what’s going to happen. You wonder if you will ever make it on your own. Camp showed him, of course you can. There is always someone there to lift you up,” said Jill.
For more information, to volunteer, make a donation, or learn about the camp’s other programs for young adults, parents and alumni, log onto www.holeinthewallgang.org.