Just one visit to Camp Jabberwocky seals the deal — you will want whatever it is the camp propagates. It will take some sacrifice and a little blood, sweat and tears but the unstoppable spirit that lives among the Tumtum trees in the woods surrounding the cabins is infectious. Good thing it’s available for everyone.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the camp and in true Camp Jabberwocky style they celebrated at the Tabernacle on July 16. Alan Dershowitz and Rose Styron took turns reading Lewis Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky from the stage. There were special guests and music, too, but the campers and counselors stole the spotlight with their smiling faces and dance moves. Rihanna has nothing on these folks when they break out her We Found Love in a Hopeless Place.
Camp Jabberwocky began simply enough when Helen (Hellcat) Lamb began bringing her students from the Fall River Cerebral Palsy Training Center to the beaches of Oak Bluffs in the summer of 1953. She was a speech therapist at the center and raising her three children alone after her husband’s death. She watched her children enjoy a beach day during their vacation on the Vineyard, and she imagined her students could use a break from their hot apartments and restrictive lives. She began bringing them down to the Vineyard, at first just a few at a time.
In those days people with any type of disability were often hidden away, their disability thought to be a reflection of some evil perpetrated by their parents. Hellcat would have none of that.
“She was determined that the kids should have as much a normal experience as her own kids,” her son John Lamb remembers. “This took a hell of a lot of convincing. The medical community did not think they [the campers] should be at a camp. She prevailed and had the attitude, ‘I’m going to start the camp with or without permission.’ She just did it.”
Hellcat, nicknamed for her driving style, died in 2011. According to various reports she died either on the cusp of, or on her 97th birthday. Her spirit of ability rather than disability is still strong at Camp Jabberwocky. Counselors help the campers achieve things people without disabilities may never do. Campers go parasailing, horseback riding and they put on staged musicals every summer. This season’s Romeo and Juliet in Las Vegas was a musical extravaganza featuring campers and counselors singing and dancing even though some cannot speak and many cannot walk. It also included numerous Elvis impersonators.
The camp is alive with something that isn’t easy to describe. Some people call it flat-out love. Whatever it is, it brings people back year after year. Counselors tell their friends and they come to the Vineyard to experience it. Campers wait all year to come. Lynne Wolf is retiring this year as chair of the board of trustees for Camp Jabberwocky. She first came to the camp 14 years ago when her oldest son Jonathan came to be a counselor. He is on the board now, too, and takes vacation time every year to come back to Camp Jabberwocky. In fact, his master’s degree in public health is result of his time at the camp, Mrs. Wolf said.
“To see the joy on their faces...it’s a labor of love,” she said. “No one on Martha’s Vineyard has a better time than the campers and counselors at Jabberwocky.”
There is story after story about family at Jabberwocky. Counselors meet their spouses there. They bring their children to camp. Lifelong friendships are formed. Careers are launched.
Claire Sommers handed out programs on Tuesday at the 60th jubilee at the Tabernacle. It’s her fifth summer as a counselor.
“I came because my friend Michelle Moore invited me,” Ms. Sommers explained. “I loved it right away. It’s exciting. It’s inviting. I’ve made some of my best friends here. I’m hoping to come back next year. In fact, I got a job at a school so that I could get summers off. It’s the reason a lot of people here become teachers.”
The camp’s early days involved Hellcat asking for day-old bread and cooking dinner on a kerosene stove. Today the camp still survives on donations. They must raise $350,000 a year to keep the camp going. The Vineyard community has been particularly generous, which allows the campers to come even if they can’t pay. In a resort community often associated with its celebrity visitors and residents, Camp Jabberwocky provides a rare look at humanity.
“It’s a remarkable thing,” John Lamb said. “I was asking businesses if I could put a poster up one summer and I realized that not only do the Islanders like the camp, but they need the camp. You can feel good about supporting the camp. It makes you feel good to be a human being. People see us and think all is not lost.”
He explained that his mother’s rule for counselors was “Thou shall not think of yourself first.” If a counselor failed to heed the commandment, they felt the brunt of Hellcat’s fury. John was a counselor and camp director for years. It was a natural transition since he was there with his siblings at the beginning.
“I used to get phone calls from mothers asking me if their child could come to camp to be a counselor. I would tell them when your child makes his own phone call I’ll consider it. I learned a lot from my mother.”