Zeno Mountain Farm celebrates success

LINCOLN — Nestled in a Lincoln nook, just between the western slopes of Mount Ellen and Mount Abraham, exists the axis of what the Halby family intends to be an innovative utopia: Zeno Mountain Farm.
The setting, which consists of a central farmhouse surrounded by a treehouse village, is home to a unique multi-age camp that its operators believe creates a comfortable atmosphere for people with disabilities to comfortably express their diverse natures. 
Run completely by volunteers and the grace of donors, the camp was created by brothers Will and Peter Halby and their respective wives, Vanessa and Ila.
The four have a long history helping individuals with disabilities: Will founded an adaptive sports camp in Oregon and a theater and music camp for those with disabilities in Los Angeles. Peter worked at an adaptive sports camp in Boston, Ila is an occupational therapist for Addison Northwest Supervisory Union elementary schools, and their routes to Zeno Mountain all stem from a Martha’s Vineyard camp for the disabled called Camp Jabberwocky.
When the Halbys dreamt up Zeno Mountain Farm, they sought to create a healthy environment where friendships between those with and without disabilities could blossom into a fun and creative camp experience. In 2008, their dream became a reality.
“I remember when the Halbys first came to Lincoln to scope out the camp … and when it became apparent what they were planning, I could tell right from the beginning that they were going to fit in well,” said Lincoln Town Clerk Sally Ober. “Lincoln’s a great fit for this camp and what it’s about. I knew that people from the community would be enthusiastic and help out, and that’s happened very quickly”
Every summer since 2009, willing minds and bodies have come from far and near to help run the camp. Volunteers like counselor Devon McKinney from Ohio and weeklong chefs like John Moyers of Bristol enable the camp to function without the exchange of money.
The campers don’t pay to come, the staff isn’t paid for their efforts, and almost all of the structures were funded by donations, like the camp’s yurt called Oz, named after Ozzy Osbourne and his family, who funded its construction.
“Volunteerism is one of the key ingredients that make (this) camp work,” said Peter. “For one, you can’t pay people enough to care for someone like we do at camp. And with the money away from the relationship, you get friendships based on pure reasons … everyone who comes is here for that reason: to make really good friends and partake in fun, creative, adventurous projects.”
Will Halby also sees volunteerism as essential to Zeno Mountain.
“The way our society is structured … as much as we’re open (to people with disabilities), this next level of relationship is tough to foster because of the pragmatics of our society. It would be impossible to establish this type of relationship (on) a staff-client (basis),” said Will. “There’s always a separation whenever somebody is getting paid to be with somebody else.”
Over the course of the camp’s three years, Zeno Mountain has woven itself deep into the fabric of Addison County. This year, the camp’s float was awarded first place in Bristol’s Fourth of July parade, and its yearly musical drew a packed house at Lincoln’s Burnham Hall.
“The talk of the town is the show at the end of the season,” said Ober. “I remember everybody talking about it before it happened and after it was all over everyone said, ‘Wow did you see that show and how inspiring and uplifting it was?’”
Other examples of the growing ties abound.
Cubbers Restaurant on Bristol’s Main Street opened up its doors to Zeno Mountain’s campers in early July for a full-fledged pizza party. The restaurant provided free of charge pizza-making instruction, all of the ingredients, and the space.
When the camp gets hot during the dog days of summer and doesn’t want to haul over to Lake Dunmore, Starksboro resident Bob Hall opens up his pond to give the Zeno gang a fresh dip of neighborly love and cool relief.
And then there’s Middlebury’s Rouse Tire Sales, which sent some of its guys to lend a hand after hours on a Saturday because the Zeno bus ran a flat on River Road. They fixed the problem and told Will to bring the bus in the next day for some maintenance.
So Will went back, and the team at Rouse gave the vehicle a thorough tune-up.
“There was a lot of labor and parts involved, and afterwards when I went in to pay the bill, the owner John Rouse took it, tore it up and said you guys are all set. There was just this surge of altruism, and that’s a really good example of how the community has consistently helped us out,” said Will.
Over the past three years, the camp has made some improvements. The Halbys worked with renowned treehouse architect James “B’fer” Roth to build a total of six treehouse cabins, paved the paths to make them more wheelchair accessible, added an outdoor patio off the main dining room, and installed composting toilets.
But as the structural elements of the camp have changed, Zeno’s philosophic backbone has remained the same by continuing to celebrate people’s differences through a bond of friendship.
“We don’t coddle people,” said Will. “We actually celebrate their diversity. We think the way that Billy, who has cerebral palsy, dances is really interesting. We’re not going to try and ask Billy to dance like somebody who doesn’t have cerebral palsy. I can’t dance like Billy because I don’t have what society deems a disability. (But) We think Billy has an amazing ability to move in a certain way.”
So what do the 50 campers who climb up to Lincoln each summer think?
If first-year camper A.J. Murray, 28, of Atlanta is any indication, then they’re likely missing Zeno Mountain already.
“If I searched a thousand years, I’d never find the words to describe my experience at Zeno Farm. It was nothing short of a miracle,” he said. “I have treasures from (these) past days that I will be able to think about for the rest of my life … (My friends at Zeno Mountain) have opened up my eyes and showed me the scope of my potential, and for that I will be forever thankful.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected].

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