Since 1988, The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp has allowed children suffering from life-threatening illness to—in the words of its founder, the late Paul Newman—“raise a little hell.” Three decades later, the camp, together with a network of other similar programs, helps 25,000 kids and family members each year.
“I’m a cynical S.O.B.,” actor Paul Newman once said. “But I have a sense of wonder here.” The longtime Westport resident made that declaration in 1988 when he opened The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in rural northeastern Ashford, CT. The approximately 320-acre camp—named in honor of Newman’s blockbuster Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—was created to enable children suffering from cancer and other severe illnesses to just be kids. Their week-long stays on the wildflower-rich, Old West-inspired grounds may include hot air balloon rides, zip-lining and fishing on Pearson Pond—all overseen by the unobtrusive, expert round-the-clock medical staff and offered completely free of charge. Physicians and nurses in shorts and T-shirts (no stethoscopes; it’s a rule) offer complex and intensive medical treatments, including on-site chemotherapy, so that even the most seriously ill campers can focus on fun. “There is no activity that every child cannot join in on,” Newman once said. “That’s part of the therapy too.” Families and healthy siblings are also included in special sessions.
The Incredible Impact on Campers
Nineteen-year-old New Canaan native Jack Goodman has a lasting connection with the camp. He spent seven summers as a camper there, some while battling a rare bone cancer that resulted in the removal of his left shoulder blade. Starting at age 9, “I spent about a year and a half in the hospital going through chemotherapy along with surgery,” Goodman recalls. “The experience left me handicapped in my left arm, and severely self-conscious, not only of how I was bald during treatment but also of the massive scar and lack of shoulder that I still have to this day.” At the camp’s clown workshop, he learned to juggle. He embraced boating. He slept—as all campers do—in a log cabin instead of a hospital bed. “The atmosphere camp creates, there is no way to describe it,” he says. “All of the staff have had an impact on me. Somehow, The Hole in the Wall finds the most caring and dedicated people year after year.” He has since become one of them, spending two summers as part of its Leaders in Training (or junior counselor) program. Currently at college in upstate New York, Goodman plans to pursue medicine as a career—a choice inspired by camp: “I would not be who I am today without Hole in the Wall.”
The Connecticut Connection
The Hole in the Wall’s roots in the community run deep—and not only because Newman and wife Joanne Woodward have been longtime residents of Westport, CT. The original medical team overseeing the camp’s clinical services came from Yale-New Haven hospital. Newman’s daughter Lissy, a Fairfield County resident, sits on the organization’s board. In 2002, an enterprising counselor brought art supplies, activities and the camp spirit into local hospitals—brightening the bedsides of children too ill to attend camp, and, according to their website, “proving that the fun and friendship experienced at camp were portable.” Now The Hole in the Wall’s Hospital Outreach Program, a.k.a. “HOP,” offers year-long programming in 40 hospitals from Philadelphia to Boston, including Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital at Westchester Medical Center. “It brings joy and laughter to children who are facing very stressful and often scary situations,” notes Ryan Thompson, The Hole in the Wall’s chief communications officer. For four years, The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp has been the primary beneficiary of the Greenwich Wine + Food Festival, presented by this magazine.
Over the years, Newman’s Hollywood connections have kept the spotlight on the camp, with people like Serendipity’s November cover star, Bridget Moynahan, as well as Bradley Cooper, who are both board members, being enthusiastic ambassadors for the program. “I’m constantly humbled by the enormous, somewhat effortless gift that The Hole in the Wall gives to these families and the trust these families put into strangers for a week. I’m blown away every time I meet these parents and the kids in action,” says Moynahan. “The people working in the camp are angels.” In March, George Clooney honored Newman’s legacy at a New York City gala to celebrate the SeriousFun Children’s Network—a constellation of camps in 50 countries inspired by The Hole in the Wall’s mission. “He is the best version of us,” Clooney said of Newman. “And I don’t mean actors. I mean humans.”
How to Help
“Camp is blessed with a supportive community of more than 25,000 donors annually,” says Ryan Thompson, chief communications officer at Hole in the Wall Gang Camp. Donations of varying amounts are used to fund individual children’s week-long experiences, family weekends or hospital outreach visits. There are also opportunities to volunteer at the camp or its administrative offices. To learn more about donating, volunteering and more, visit holeinthewallgang.org.