The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp

Paul Newman and a Ride Home

Posted on by Ryan Thompson, Chief Communications Officer

Ryan with campers

When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.

When I first read these words in S.E. Hinton’s classic The Outsiders back in seventh grade, I knew very little about Paul Newman. I mean, I knew he was a movie star and recalled something about salad dressing, but that was about it. Yet for some reason, this quote stayed with me for many years. Sure, it’s the opening sentence to a quintessential coming of age story for many teenagers, but I now think the words of Ponyboy Curtis endured because of something else. I believe the universe was foreshadowing journey and pointing my heart toward an experience that would change my life forever.

This was my eighth summer spending a week at The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp as a volunteer cabin counselor. My first session, back in 2009, was during the summer after Paul Newman passed away. The night before the campers arrived, I was filled with many questions and plenty of conflicting emotions despite a hearty volunteer orientation. It was like Christmas Eve and the night before the SATs all at once. Feelings of excitement for the arrival of the campers were matched with pangs of nervousness. Would I be equal to the task? Would the kids like me? What did the week ahead have in store for us?

After a restless night, all those feelings went away when the first campers arrived the next morning. When I saw their smiles and the spring in their steps, I suddenly felt all my hang-ups and inhibitions disappear. This was truly a homecoming for these children, and I could see an instantaneous transformation as these patients shed the shadow of serious illnesses and became kids once again. As I was throwing the football around cabin circle with my campers, I could feel the spirit of this sacred place telling me something – that I needed to be my truest self. That is what this place expected and these kids needed.

And so I did. I jumped in with both feet singing, dancing, cheering and being just plain goofy. I did not know where the energy was coming from and barely recognized the person that I had become. Then it hit me – Hole in the Wall had awakened my inner child just like it had for the campers. It was a person that I had not seen in nearly two decades.  My smile had never been bigger and my heart had never felt so open. I was no longer a volunteer at a Camp for children with serious illnesses. I was home.

Every session since that first summer has been filled with similarly profound experiences. I still cherish every laugh, high five and piggy back ride. Sure, my knees may creak a little more than they did back then and I might need more cups of coffee to keep up with the campers. But I’ve realized that nothing and no one at Hole in the Wall ever grows old. We are and will always be kids at heart.