Camp Jabberwocky is a magical place where dreams come true and nothing is impossible. It’s been that way for 65 years.
The first page of Clark Hanjian’s Jabberwocky: A Brief History of The Martha’s Vineyard Cerebral Palsy Camp begins with: “On a small island in the North Atlantic, off the southern shore of Massachusetts, there is a place where hope flourishes. The place is Camp Jabberwocky – a small summer camp for the disabled…”
On September 5th the last campers of the summer left Camp Jabberwocky. Two days later, we began a major overhaul of the main building, known as the Mess Hall, and other parts of the facility. The 14-acre campus, with 17 buildings, which usually falls silent at the end of the summer, is chock full of activity and change. In mid-May, just before the campers return, this transformation will be complete and Jabberwocky will be, we hope, just a bit more magical than ever before.
Last week, as Jabberwocky executive director Liza Gallagher sat with SMCo architects Matt Coffey and Beth Kostman reviewing the proposed furnishings and color schemes for the new space, she told us that the day before, as a session ended and campers departed, there were many tears and some wailing. Some of these campers have been here every season for 30 years.
This is where, as Clark says:
Disabled folks are at the center of a community rather than at the periphery.
The camp started [in the early 50’s] as a small experiment: a handful of children with cerebral palsy, a tiny summer cottage, a director, and a young assistant. From there, the camp has grown to a…volunteer staff of well over forty people [and several paid]. It now serves about one hundred disabled children and adults every summer.
Jabberwocky is a community. It has families and extended families, and grandparents, and children. It has births and deaths and marriages. It has oral history, traditions, myths, and legends. It has people with a full range of abilities, skills, and interests. And these people work, play, eat, and create together. They argue and dance together. They write and cry together. And like people in other communities, they are here year after year. A few come and go each season, but the majority are here living together every summer.
For most of the year, disabled people are in the minority. They are stared at, singled out for special treatment, and generally viewed as outside the mainstream of normal life. For a couple of months each year, the camp provides a break from this routine. At Jabberwocky, people with disabilities form the majority of the community. Their experience becomes the dominant experience. Their needs become the priority needs. Their concerns become common concerns. In these wondrous times the whole community becomes as family.
It is a record of experiments and risks. A portrait of cooperation. Jabberwocky is a tale of bountiful harvest from a few scattered seeds. It is an epic of generosity and thanksgiving. Stories like this are crucial to the existence of humanity. They remind us of what great things are possible in our limited days. And so, we need to keep telling them.
This summer we had the great good fortune to be a part of a new Jabberwocky program. The old red bus rolled into our yard on four occasions with a group of campers who came to do woodworking in our shop. “The campers were positive, upbeat, and hilarious,“ says Jim Vercruysse, our shop project lead. “My favorite time was at the end of each class when we would take a group photo holding up our finished projects and call out ‘JABBERWOCKY!’ It felt great to be part of such an enthusiastic and cheerful bunch.”
At the end of the summer of 1966 a counselor named Linda Yenkin wrote in the Vineyard Gazette:
We are all tired now, but when the children are gone and the camp is quiet, when there is no more Skipper wandering off and calling everyone he meets a pigeon, and when there is no more Kevin yelling in the Mad Hatter’s ear in the very early morning, “Move over, my bed’s broke,” when we no longer hear any more off-key singing in the condemned looking red bus, when all this is gone, then we will miss it all very much, and only then will we realize that we have to wait an entire year for the magic to begin again. But the magic never wears off.
There is, I’m certain, nothing in the world quite like Camp Jabberwocky. And now it will change. Some of the campers said good-bye to the old mess hall and “thanked it for the memories,” said Liza.
The project is part of a fundamental shift in our company’s work or, rather, an expansion of the breadth of our endeavors. Our high-end residential projects, affordable housing work, performance engineering, and solar design/installations continue, but another arena has become central: institutional work for non-profit organizations. At the same time as we have been completing the Jabberwocky plans, we have begun planning for a new campus for Martha’s Vineyard Community Services (our umbrella social service agency which serves 6,000 Islanders each year), and an expansion of the Island Grown Initiative’s Farm Hub.
Our previous experience with institutional work has been limited to master planning efforts, so this is new for us. Each of these projects requires significant learning. But that’s nothing new – we always seem to be doing something different that we must learn how to do before we do it. Exciting stuff. Keeps the blood pumping and the synapses firing. As long as the inevitable mistakes are minor, all’s well.
I can’t adequately describe the thrill of working with this organization and watching this project slowly find its form and round into shape. There are times in life when you know that you are doing what ought to be done, that the work that you are doing is bringing fundamental positive change to a place or an organization or a community. Those are particularly rewarding times.
In service to that notion, some of our recent strategic planning work has focused on committing ourselves to finding ways to engage in as much of this mission-driven work as possible. Now those opportunities are rolling in. Apparently, saying dreams out loud is the first step toward realization. Simple as that.
We’re off on an inspiring, soul-stirring ride at Jabberwocky!