LINCOLN — When the people of Zeno Mountain Farm get together each summer, it’s more like a family reunion than a summer camp, according to Peter and Ila Halby, the husband and wife team who are its directors.
The Lincoln nonprofit is the newest incarnation of a series of multi-age summer camps originally founded as “Camp Jabberwocky” on Martha’s Vineyard in 1953. Like its predecessors, Zeno Mountain Farm has the uncommon mission of hosting a mix of people with and without developmental and physical disabilities. The goal is to create and sustain a unique community.
“We believe that disabilities are just a part of the fabric, they bring a lot of diversity into the world,” said Ila, who is married to Peter.
As such, the camp includes some people who have cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, autism, cognitive delay, Williams Syndrome and spina bifida, as well as people who have law degrees, a love of art, carpentry skills and a willingness to dance in public.
The new nonprofit camp, which operates as the home base for several smaller camps in and around the U.S., is located on 247 acres at the top of Zeno Road in Lincoln. It opened its doors to 31 campers in June for three weeks of classes in filmmaking, theater, art, adventure and sports.
All counselors at the camp are volunteers, and, with an almost one-to-one ratio of volunteers to campers, deep relationships form, some of which have lasted for over 20 years.
“What’s cool about all of the counselors is that they are really just professional people who have two weeks off for vacation and they take their vacation at camp,” Peter said. “We’ve had counselors whom we’ve known for 20-plus years and they have kids and still come back.”
The Halbys, along with Peter’s brother Will and his wife Vanessa, also directors, have been involved with the camp for more than 20 years, beginning in Martha’s Vineyard. The four decided to split from Camp Jabberwocky in 2005, to create a new camp that could blur the lines between counselor and camper while nurturing the artistic and physical talents of their campers, going as far as to rename the campers “mates” and the counselors “buckaloos.”
Zeno Mountain Farm has been dubbed “The Mothership.” This base camp is a way for everyone to reconvene for the summer, said Ila, and share adventures from the smaller camps the directors also run in Florida, California and Guatemala. The four directors brought a team of more than 60 dedicated campers and counselors to their new location in Lincoln, including camper Larry Perry who has attended camp since he was six years old in 1953 and stuck with it through its move to Vermont.
Jeremy Vest from Maryland, a 22-year-old camper with Williams Syndrome, has been coming to camp since he was eight years old. He was more than happy to check out the new campsite with Peter this spring. Immediately giving his approval of the parcel of land, Vest was eager to chip in with the creation of what is now Zeno Mountain Farm. Vest donned a pair of heavy working gloves and helped Peter cut and drag logs to build what is now called “Camp Village” — three semi-permanent tents that house both campers and counselors.
“Vermont’s a really sweet place, a lot of mountains,” Vest said. “When I wake up in the morning at home, all I see around me is houses. When I wake up here I see beautiful mountains.”
Other campers and counselors sleep in a large round structure called “The Yurt,” similar to a teepee, that sits nearby. A step away from “Camp Village” is a wheel-chair-accessible treehouse with an assortment of mismatched windows, whimsical lighting and great oak trunks shooting through the wooden floor. Nearby is a small rock garden with a circle of Adirondack chairs and just down the hill is a fire pit along with homemade wooden benches.
The only structure that existed here before the directors bought the land was a small house built in 1985. They extended it into to include a kitchen and a spacious room, called “The Great Room,” where campers eat meals, create art and put on dances.
Ila said that although the property already feels like home, there is still much to do. She hopes to create permanent housing in the near future.
As a nonprofit, Zeno Mountain Farm relies solely on donations. Neither campers nor counselors pay or get paid to take part in the camp. The activities, which range from making films, windsurfing, horseback riding and bowling, are funded by private donations.
“We have raised the money through all the wonderful friends we’ve met over the years,” said Peter. “It’s a lot of people giving a little.”
Ila said the “Obama method” of networking has been effective in raising money and making star-worthy connections. In the camp’s last film, “The Greatest Song Ever Written,” a rock ’n’ roll “mocumentary,” counselors and campers shared the screen with some famous faces. Rock legend Ozzy Osborne and movie star Johnny Knoxville, who were friends of one of the volunteers, make appearances in a cast full of campers and counselors. The movie premiered this past Monday evening at The Big Picture Theater in Waitsfield and is open to the public.
Campers and counselors are already onto their next production, a horror movie they’re calling “In the Pines.”
Though fun is never in question at camp, when it comes to art, whether film or painting, the directors, counselors and campers demand the very best work from each other, said Peter, and setting the bar low only brings people down.
“When you gather together with a group of people with and without disabilities and you have high expectation for the art you do, the music you create, you can bring everybody up,” he said.
But at the end of the day, it’s about friendship, Peter added.
“I don’t know anybody else who does this kind of thing, where everybody volunteers and the same people come back every year and it’s like a family reunion.”