People have asked her, in their quest to initiate a program similar to the longstanding summer Camp Jabberwocky, how to go about doing so without any start-up money.
Money? Who needs money?
At the Grange Hall in West Tisbury on Tuesday evening, as Jabberwocky’s founding mother Helen Lamb stood before a crowd of enthusiastic campers and camp supporters to accept the Ruth Bogan Creative Living Award, on behalf of her and her camp, she pointed out casually, nonplussed by the notion of depending on a dollar to realize a dream: “I didn’t have any money . . . and it worked out very well indeed.”
A bit of an understatement, really. In the half-century since Mrs. Lamb established the volunteer and donation-driven camp that sprawls over 14 acres in Vineyard Haven, it has grown to accommodate over 100 campers each summer. It has inspired numerous affiliated camps spread across the United States and into Central America. Perhaps most importantly, Jabberwocky has offered campers and caregivers the opportunity to take a break from the demanding treatment and therapy schedules that define their lives, and have some fun.
The Permanent Endowment Fund for Martha’s Vineyard bestows the prestigious Creative Living Award annually to people who represent a generosity that defines the spirit of Island living. This year, the benefactress is a living Island legend, and at 95, she remains the same vivacious leader that simply decided to forge a retreat for forgotten children 55 years ago — and promptly turned her plan into action.
The Grange Hall was warm to the point of stifling on Tuesday night, and ceiling fans did little to dispel the heat, intensified by dozens of bodies crowded into the limited space. But attentions focused on the activity at the front of the room as different people whose lives have been touched by the force that is Hellcat, as Mrs. Lamb is fondly known, rose to address the crowd gathered in her honor. “She looked beyond limitations and obstacles,” said Mary Beth Grady, former camp counselor and current co-owner of Chilmark Chocolates.
She never took offense when people criticized her decision to integrate her disabled charges into everyday life. “Children like that should not have to be seen in public,” said former counselor Deanne Bonnar, remembering a comment made by a disapproving passerby in one of the early years of camp. Hellcat took the comment not as an insult, but as a challenge to change the perception of children with handicaps. Judging from the friendly reception Jabberwocky campers receive today in their various public excursions around the Island, the attitude has indeed been transformed.
“She has altered the paths of the lives of countless people,” said Ms. Bonnar, who was a girl of 15 when she first came to volunteer at Jabberwocky. Ms. Bonnar, who was herself born with a disability, a missing arm, shared the story of her first encounter with Hellcat, which came as quite a shock to her at the time. Hellcat stood before her as she disembarked from the ferry all those years ago. “Why did they send me a cripple?” she said, her attention shifting immediately to Ms. Bonnar’s missing limb.
The exchange was a mark of Hellcat’s personality. Selfless and charitable though she may be, she is honest and abrupt to a fault, unconcerned with political correctness or impracticality. When she moved past her initial shock, Ms. Bonnar set out to prove the camp director wrong, to work hard and show that she was no dud. Perhaps that was Hellcat’s intention all along. “Hellcat is an extraordinary human being . . . but she’s always that — a human being,” said Ms. Bonnar.
In the end, it is not only the lives and perceptions of disabled children that Hellcat is responsible for transforming. “We found it was our own lives that were transformed,” said Ms. Bonnar, referring to the experience of camp volunteers.
“We are all better for the vision that you had,” she said, speaking directly to Mrs. Lamb. “We are better because you had the courage to live your convictions.”
In perhaps the most compelling testaments to Hellcat’s legacy, former camper Jimmy Morton made a speech of thanks. As one of the five original campers in 1953, Mr. Morton has counted Hellcat as a lifelong source of support. “She worked with me when the doctors said, ‘Jimmy, you will never speak.’” Now, he is not only talking, but has enjoyed an independent life on his own for the last 18 years. “This is my second home,” he said of the Vineyard, and the camp in particular. “Home away from home.”
Campers gathered at the front of the room to sing This Land is Your Land before Hellcat was presented with her award, “for reminding each of us, each summer, of the joy of giving.” She demonstrated little interest in the award plaque, but brightened in response to the accompanying $1,000 check. “Oh, excellent,” she said eagerly.
She then took a moment to address the crowd herself, beginning with a trademark wisecrack. “I’m very surprised — all these good things said about me,” she said. She thanked her campers, and the hundreds of counselors who have helped to make the camp what it is today without any monetary compensation. She remembered thinking years ago that her mission would be a “very uphill road, and it was,” but she remains grateful to all the people who have worked together to support and recognize the amazing accomplishments Jabberwocky has made over the years.
“I’m just very, very happy. I was very dubious about coming to this thing. Now I’m glad I did,” she said.