Paul Newman’s camp for sick kids rises from the ashes

ASHFORD, Conn. (AP) – Amarey Brookshire was devastated when she heard about the fire at the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp for seriously ill children – her camp.

The February 2021 blaze destroyed much of the retreat in the woods of eastern Connecticut, which was founded by the late actor Paul Newman in 1988 to give children with devastating medical conditions a place to, as he said, “raise a little hell.”

The blaze burned the center of the camp, which had been made to look like an Old West town and housed the woodworking shop, the arts and crafts area, the camp store, and an educational kitchen. Fire investigators determined it was not arson but could not pinpoint a cause.

Amarey, now 13, said she was in the hospital when her mom told her the news.

“She told me that it was the arts and crafts and the wood shop area, so I was really sad because I love doing wood shop and like the arts and crafts,” she said. “I was really sad.”

Amarey, who has sickle cell disease, thought about friends she made at camp who were going through similar health struggles. She thought of the joy she felt catching her first fish, zip lining, swimming in a heated pool without worrying that cold water would trigger a health crisis, and the feeling of accomplishment after completing a box in the wood shop.

“We thought of how amazing that area of camp was, because when you walk in, you immediately feel life,” said Amarey’s mother, Amarilis Frajul. “Like when you’re in the wood shop area and you see all the marks on the tables, the holes from people before us. You go into arts and crafts, you see the paint, the glitter, the smell, and you know that it’s been used, you know, so many lives have been there. And to know that there have been so many memories created, and it was gone like that. That was hard.”

But the camp wasn’t closed. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and last summer, tents housed the creative center.

And money came pouring in, from 4,500 donors. Travelers, the insurance company, gave $1 million. The Newman’s Own Foundation donated an additional $1 million. And on Tuesday, the new $4.5 million, 11,000-square-foot (1,022-square-meter) creative complex opens. It’s a single building, made to look like several structures, with twice the space and an open-floor design. The wheelchair entrances are no longer separate, so nobody feels excluded.

And there are new amenities such as a quiet sensory room, a room with a fireplace for parents and caregivers to meet and talk, and a large deck for outdoor events. The facility now has geothermal heating and cooling, a large emergency storm shelter, and huge cisterns, so that if another fire breaks out, first responders won’t have to pump water from the camp’s pond.

“What was a traumatic, horrible event was quickly turned around because of the kindness of strangers, and loyalty of longtime friends,” Camp chief executive Jimmy Canton said. “So, you know, they took this tragedy and turned it into a blessing.”

A centerpiece of the new facility will be a large mosaic, made up of more than 4,000 pieces and located between the arts and crafts and woodworking area, that reads “Camp is Magic.”

The piece was donated and installed by artist Mia Schon, who works in Boston and Tel Aviv, Israel. It contains a lot of “Easter eggs” for campers to find, such as a rendering of Weepee, a legendary fish said to live in the camp’s pond.

Schon learned how to do mosaics while working in 2006 as a camp counselor at Hole in the Wall, so for her it was a full-circle moment.

“I learned about creating things from nothing,” she said. “And just make believe and playing. And then on a personal level, I think I learned how to be myself … that everyone would accept me for who I was.”

Frajul is making plans to send her daughter back to camp for a third time this summer.

And Canton said that thanks to the rebuild, the creative complex will be used year-round for meetings and programming surrounding the camp’s mission.

“After 33 years of watching the resilience of our kids and their families, when something like this happened, there was no option but to rise, right?” Canton said. “Their resilience teaches us how to be resilient, teaches this camp to be resilient. I mean, that’s why this place is so sacred.”

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