The Day



After a fire destroyed part of the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Ashford in 2021, Amarilis Franjul said the event shook the spirit of the “magical place.”

The camp, a summer retreat for seriously ill children, like Franjul’s 13-year-old daughter, Amarey Brookshire, who has been hospitaliz­ed dozens of times for sickle cell disease, provided a space where Frajul said kids could be kids and families didn’t need to “sit and cry over stories” because parents “know exactly what you’re going through.”

Franjul said the fire “created many broken hearts.”

Two years later, exploring the newly rebuilt 11,000 square-foot Creative Complex, Franjul and Brookshire beamed as they thought of all the new memories to be made at the new facility.

“It’s really cool,” Brookshire said. “My favorite part (of camp) is probably just doing the different activities. There’s a lot to do here … I think this year will be really cool to come in here and start doing the arts and crafts and the woodshop and the cooking.”

With giant scissors in hand, Brookshire cut the ribbon on the brand-new facility Tuesday at a ceremony attended by the governor, camp staff, first responders and program donors.

At the event, Gov. Ned Lamont dedicated his remarks to the memory of Paul Newman, who founded the camp in 1988 to give children with serious illnesses the opportunit­y to “raise a little hell.”

Lamont recalled a conversati­on with Newman in which the late actor and philanthro­pist called the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp “the most important program in the world,” adding that the camp was something “I want my name identified with for the rest of my life and beyond.”

Ashford — 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. The Travelers insurance company and the Travelers Championsh­ip golf tournament gave a combined gift of $1 million. The Newman’s Own Foundation donated an additional $1 million. And on Tuesday, the new $4.5 million, 11,000-square-foot creative complex opened. 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 CEO 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 yearround 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.”

 ?? PAT EATON ROBB/AP PHOTO ?? Artist Mia Schon finishes a mural in one of the activity rooms of the Hole In the Wall Gang Camp in Ashford on March 2. Two years after a fire devastated Paul Newman’s camp for seriously ill children, the rebuilt camp center is opening.
PAT EATON ROBB/AP PHOTO Artist Mia Schon finishes a mural in one of the activity rooms of the Hole In the Wall Gang Camp in Ashford on March 2. Two years after a fire devastated Paul Newman’s camp for seriously ill children, the rebuilt camp center is opening.

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