Camp celebrates 80 years
July 26, 2007
By MEGAN JAMES
GOSHEN — Up at Camp Thorpe in Goshen, Joyce Heath used to have to wait for counselors to take the temperature of the water before she and the campers — children with physical disabilities — were allowed to swim in the dammed-up brook. If it wasn’t quite 68 degrees, they would have to find something else to do.
That was about 70 summers ago. Today, the campers, mostly developmentally disabled children and adults, horse around in a pool right on the campus complete with inflatable whale toys and noodles.
The camp has come a long way during the last seven decades.
This year, Heath, the granddaughter of the founder, Walter Thorpe, will help the camp celebrate its 80th birthday. On Saturday, July 28, it will host an all-day anniversary celebration for campers, alumni, supporters and friends, including hayrides, a fishing derby, live music, dancing and carnival events.
And campers like Mary Lafountain, Abe St. George and Tammie Mashteare, who have also spent 10, 20 or 30 of their summers up in Goshen, will celebrate their community with the people who knew it many years ago.
In the 1920s Walter Thorpe, a minister from Brandon, spent his summers giving “chalk talks” — he used a blackboard to draw cartoons and tell stories to children — at the many camps around Lake Dunmore.
At that time, polio epidemics ran rampant across the country, affecting children in particular. Those infected with the debilitating disease, he noticed, weren’t accepted at most summer camps.
“It was his dream to start a camp where they could have the same opportunities as regular children,” Heath said.
So in 1927 he transformed his summer home, 100 acres of farmland he had purchased from Governor Redfield Proctor in 1922, into “The Vermont Camp for Crippled Children.” The land ran along Capen Hill Road and according to the town minutes book, included a house, a corncrib, an old hen house and a cow barn “with outbuildings in varied degrees of dilapidation.”
Thorpe borrowed $200 from the First National Bank of Brandon and began to tear down the old buildings. He was well-known throughout the state, Heath said, and with the financial support of acquaintances from New York City and Boston, as well as construction help from three men and a pair of horses, he was able to erect five cottages, a dining hall and a washhouse.
The camp was up and running, with accommodations for 75 children, in about four months.
That summer Thorpe and his wife hosted 17 girls — the camp didn’t go co-ed until five years later — primarily from the Shriners Hospital and the Industrial School for Crippled Children in Boston. It was the first camp of its kind in the Northeast, Heath said.
“These kids had never been out of the city before, so it was an eye-opener for them,” she said.
She and her sister jokingly took advantage of this fact when they became “captive campers” in the early 30s. They would scare the city kids who didn’t know what fireflies were.
But Heath was exposed to new things, too. She made good friends with the city girls, including a handful of children of color.
“It was a wonderful way to be introduced (to diversity),” she said. “In Proctor we had nothing like that. We had never seen children of color. But at camp the color disappears just as the handicap disappears and you don’t see it anymore.”
Heath’s parents took over the camp when Thorpe died in 1933. And 30 years later, Heath herself became director. Over that time the camper population began to shift.
“The polio vaccine came in, so epidemics weren’t as threatening as they once were,” she said. “And they made great strides in other physical disabilities. So the children just weren’t there anymore.”
But Heath, like her grandfather, was still committed to helping people with disabilities, so she turned to the local school district, where she found children with social and economic disadvantages. Then the camp opened up to students from the Brandon Training School, starting the adult program that is now a key feature in the camp.
The camp was able to accept more people in wheelchairs in the 1970s, thanks to a donation from a former camper with cerebral palsy. He paid for the construction of sidewalks all over the campus, including a nature trail through the woods.
Heath has seen opportunities for disabled people blossom over the years, she said.
“There are groups out there now that are really seeing to it that handicapped people are really fitting into society and into jobs,” she said. “You see them out there. They’re doing a good job.”
She must have been talking about her granddaughter, Molly, now the camp’s program director.
Molly talked about the simple opportunities she has been able to offer people like Lafountain and Mashteare.
“It’s just a chance for them to be with peers, and not have to worry about feeling different,” she said. “Here, everyone can be exactly who they are and they don’t have to worry about it. They get to do all the fun things that other kids get to do in the summer. They can let loose.”
Lafountain, who has come to Goshen since she was about 8 (she’s now 39) participates in Special Olympics and Speak Out Addison County, a self-advocacy group. As a “global messenger” for the Olympics, she has spoken to groups in the area about supporting the organization, and she proudly listed a half-dozen TV stations and newspapers that have featured her voice as an advocate for the developmentally disabled.
Still, talking about her memories from camp made her face light up.
“We would pick blueberries and come back here to go swimming,” she said. The she added, with a smile, “And I really like coming here to bug Molly, too.”