How a summer camp on Nantucket has been enriching the lives of children and adults with disabilities for nearly a decade.
Back in the 1950s, many children with mental disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, were treated with a level of callousness that’s hard to fathom in today’s world. Bound in wheelchairs and unable to communicate, many of these children were not welcomed into public schools and often spent their days wheeled into the corner of hospital rooms or plopped in front of television sets. Unknown to many at the time was that locked within these children were perfectly active minds dying to get out and play like any other kid.
In 1952, an English speech therapist named Helen Lamb came to the United States and began working with children stricken with cerebral palsy at a clinic in New Bedford. During a summer vacation with her three children in Martha’s Vineyard, Lamb had a revelation: “I started thinking about all those children I worked with sitting in their hot apartments with little chance to even get outside, as they had to be carried just about everywhere. And here were my three children running and laughing and frolicking in the waves, having the time of their lives. It just wasn’t right.” Lamb decided then and there that she would start her own summer camp and bring children with cerebral palsy and other disabilities to the island and get some sea air in their lungs.
Everyone I talked to at the clinic, doctors, nurses, therapists, thought I was daft. Apparently it had never been done before,” wrote Lamb before she passed away in 2011. “The only people who supported the idea were the parents. For the first time in their lives, they’d get a break.”
Lamb began by taking four children at a time to the Vineyard. During these visits she saw how the children came alive, exhibiting new levels of engagement and communication. The camp quickly grew in popularity with hundreds of children of all ages and disabilities embarking on exciting adventures on Martha’s Vineyard over the years.
Nearly ten years ago, an offshoot of Helen Lamb’s camp called Tulgey Wood was brought to Nantucket by one of her daughters, Gillian Butchman. Before making the move from Martha’ s Vineyard, Butchman was unsure of what to expect on Nantucket. When her mother first introduced her campers to Martha’s Vineyard back in the fifties, they were often asked to leave public places and restaurants. “She was told ‘I’m so sorry Mrs. Lamb but people are here for vacation and it just makes them too sad to see these poor crippled children,’” Butchman says. Things have obviously changed for the better since then, but Butchman was still concerned about how “one of the most expensive and elite places for summer vacation in the United States” wouldreceive her campers. To her delight, when she and her campers arrived in August of 2006, the Nantucket community quickly rallied around them: “I have to say how very welcomed we’ve felt everywhere on Nantucket. We’ve been very graciously received,” she says.
Carrying on the legacy established by her mother, Butchman’ s philosophy for Tulgey Wood is to encourage friendships between people with disabilities and those without. The camp is run by counselors known as “mates” who often use their own vacation time from their day jobs to volunteer for the three-week camp. Traveling from places as far off as England, Scotland, and Mexico, not only are the mates unpaid, but they also even pay their own way to get to Nantucket to participate in the camp. “It is as much fun for the people without disabilities as it is for those with,” Butchman explains. That’ s not to say that it isn’t a lot of work. “It is,” she says. “But as I always say, climbing Mount Everest must be a lot of work, but still people love to do it.”
Tulgey Wood is open to campers of all disabilities and ages, ranging from as young as fourteen years old to as old as sixty. With the camp set at an unbelievably low cost of $50 a week per camper, the only prerequisite, Butchman says, is that the campers are prepared for an action-packed schedule. From the crack of dawn, there are trips to the beach, horseback riding, sailing, biking, storytelling, games, plays, dinner and much more, day after day. “Even if they’ve spent a lot of their life in one place and do a lot of television watching, often when they come to camp they find that they just adore the adventure and the varied activities,” Butchman says. “If you’re not familiar, the campers look as though they’re not able to understand or do anything. So people tend to talk down to them as if talking to a young child. But when you spend time in one of the camps, you realize that they’re, in fact, quite intelligent, but are what we call ‘locked in,’ because they have little or no verbal communication.” Through their time spent together on wild adventures and daily activities, campers and mates develop innovative ways to communicate. “As people try to communicate and come to use different systems,” Butchman explains, “you get very interested in trying new ways, and several of our mates have gone on to study speech pathology.”
The Nantucket community has played a pivotal role in the success of Tulgey Wood over the last decade. So much so that Butchman has established what she calls the “kitchen cabinet” of Nantucketers who serve as advisers, fundraisers, and even mates themselves. Islanders like Joan and Jacques Zimicki have helped provide housing to the campers, while Eric Evans of Don Allen Ford loans them a large vehicle to use for the camp. Nurses from the Nantucket Cottage Hospital, including Gloria Gasnarez, Helen Long, and Maureen Marcklinger help provide care for the campers. Jack Weinhold photographs the camp. The list of local supporters also includes Peter Boynton, Bob Lehman, Darcy Creech, Mary Beth Weinhold and others. Tulgey Wood has aligned with Bob and Suzanne Wright’s Autism Speaks and has received support from a wide range of island nonprofits including the Maria Mitchell Association, Sea Pony Farms, Nantucket Wheelers, the Unitarian Meeting House and others. Even with all this community support, Tulgey Wood relies heavily on donations to keep the tuition price low and the campers’ spirits high. To donate or volunteer to Tugley Wood visit www.tulgey.org.