Suspended by ropes high in the Adirondack pines, young campers at Double H Ranch can leave behind all sorts of things — worries, hospital visits, but especially the idea of being limited by medical conditions.
A teen harnessed to an angled cable leaps from a platform and zips down to the forest floor as Green Day’s “Time of Your Life” blares from a boombox.
Nearby, counselors gingerly raise a little boy named Jamil into a rope swing. Tight-lipped and wary, he breaks into a gigawatt smile when he starts swinging eight feet over the clearing to the raucous chanting of his cabin mates.
“Jah-Meel! Jah-Meel! Jah-Meel!”
The summer scene of young daredevils at the Double H is testament to Paul Newman’s philanthropy. His idea in the ’80s to start a camp in Connecticut for critically ill children has grown unexpectedly into an international phenomenon with a ninth Hole in the Wall Gang camp opening soon. The camps will host thousands of children, for free, well after the 81-year-old actor speaks his last line before a camera.
“If I leave a legacy,” Newman said, “it will be the camps.”
The rustic cabins of the Double H are tucked in the woods of the southern Adirondacks by a mountain lake. Programs run year-round, but the place really buzzes in the summer. As campers climb ropes among tall trees, others paint faces, ride horses, swim and play soccer. It’s typical summer camp stuff, which is the whole point.
Though campers’ diagnoses include cancer and muscular dystrophy, counselors cringe at terms like “sick kids’ camp.”
“We want to present the opportunity to be a child first, not a child with an illness,” said camp director Jacqueline Brown.
Encouragement is equally full-throated for the camper who swings on the ropes like Spider-Man and the one whose personal victory is trotting slowly on horseback. “There you go!” counselors yell at a girl nervously holding the reins.
“It’s hard to describe the love you feel in the air here. You’re here one day, it’s addicting,” said Christopher Woll, who first came here as a 7-year-old with sarcoma.
He loved the woodsy oasis where people didn’t stare at his bald head. Now a 20-year-old with a scraggly beard, Woll is in remission and having even more fun as a camp counselor.
“Here, everyone is the same,” he said. “Everyone loves you the same.”
It all started with salad dressing
The story of the camps begins, improbably enough, in 1980 with Newman and his pal A.E. Hotchner stirring up oil and vinegar with a canoe paddle in the actor’s Connecticut barn.
They wanted to pass out bottles of homemade salad dressing during a round of Christmas caroling. As the pair explains in their book, “Shameless Exploitation in Pursuit of the Common Good,” Newman thought of selling the leftover dressing. That idea spawned the now ubiquitous Newman’s Own brand of dressings, pasta sauces, popcorn and salsa, which have raised some $200 million for charities.
Announcing plans for the original Hole in the Wall Gang camp in 1986, Newman said it was made possible by salad dressing, “and the people who buy the damn stuff.” Newman has remained fuzzy on his inspiration, saying he just woke up with the idea.
However, the origin of camp’s name is clear to any fan of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” The Hole in the Wall Gang was led by Newman’s affable outlaw character, Butch.
Double H (stands for health and happiness) opened in 1993 after the late amusement park developer Charles Wood called Newman proposing they convert an old dude ranch into a second Hole in the Wall Gang camp.
The Adirondack camp’s success cleared the way for affiliated camps in Florida, California, France and elsewhere, said Newman’s Own Foundation board member Bob Forrester. The ninth camp, in Israel, is to officially open next year and more are in the process of being accredited.
The relationship between Newman and the camps is like the father of young adult children: he gives them some financial support and visits when he can, but they must make their own way. Only about 15 percent of the money that Newman’s Own Foundation gives out goes to the camps. Newman wants the camps to have broad-based support, so camps must rely on other sources.
Double H, for instance, is trying to raise a $15 million endowment to help pay the costs of annually hosting about 1,200 people. Hundreds of staff and volunteers keep the place running in the busy summer season, with Brown constantly crisscrossing the camp to supervise.
Signs of the life-and-death struggles playing out here are subtle, like the line of young pine trees next to the soccer field representing campers who have died. Small signs mark whose tree it is: “Christine,” “Marco M.,” “Marraye,” the last remembered by Brown as a girl who loved swimming so much, even losing an arm to cancer did not deter her. Brown gives a small smile looking down at the tree.
“She was an amazing little girl.”
Newman stops by occasionally but his visits to the camps have become more difficult as the camps multiply and he gets older. At 81, Newman has the same wiry build he had circa “Cool Hand Luke,” but he walked with a shuffle during a dinner this summer for Double H supporters at Saratoga Springs. His face has grown craggier than the smiling guy on the salad dressing bottle.
“It’s getting harder and harder,” he told The Associated Press before the dinner. “I came up a couple of times last year, once this year.”
Despite the call on his time, Newman clearly loves the camps, as surprised as he is by their growth.
“I had no idea they would sprout like mushrooms,” he said.