While marching in this year’s Fourth of July parade, fellow campers and I, along with our fun-loving counselors, will be all thinking about Helen Lamb. The founder of Camp Jabberwocky died peacefully in her summer cottage in Oak Bluffs last August at the age of 97. Sadness engulfed us when we learned of her passing. This summer Camp Jabberwocky will remember, and celebrate, her life.
Camp Jabberwocky, located in Vineyard Haven, is the longest running residential camp for people with physical and intellectual disabilities on the Eastern Seaboard. Mrs. Lamb, known to all as Hellcat, felt that Martha’s Vineyard provided the ideal community for a camp such as this. The Fourth of July parade on the Island was one of Hellcat’s favorite events. Way back in the mid 1960s Mrs. Lamb recognized the potential of this parade to help raise awareness about the disabled community and inspire donations to support her camp.
The former actress, who immigrated to America with her three children from England in 1951, also considered the parade her stage.
“One of my favorite Fourth of July memories of Hellcat was the summer when a chariot was built for her to be carried in for the parade route,” recalled Kristen St. Amour, who has been coming to camp since 1996 (and presently is a trustee of the camp as well as assistant to our July session co-director JoJo). She added that Mrs. Lamb was the Queen of Hearts that year and eight handsome male counselors carried her on the chariot. The chariot was beautifully built but a bit wobbly. “Anyone else would have yelled and been frightened but Hellcat kept a smile on her face and waved the whole parade,” she said.
In the early 1940s, Mrs. Lamb ended her acting career to earn her degree in speech pathology. Her strong will and no-nonsense attitude often frightened people and mistakenly gave people an ornery first impression of her. My fellow camper and friend, Peter O’Hara, thought she was a mean old woman upon their initial meeting in 1974.
“She didn’t take any back talk and she told you to have proper manners,” especially when people gave donations to camp, Peter said.
After thinking about what Peter told me, I realized Mrs. Lamb had a big challenge on her hands when we decided to teach me manners. During my first summer, other campers were having a great time, but I was constantly crying, especially at mealtime. So one evening Hellcat abruptly stood up from the dinner table, sternly marched toward me, and ordered my caring counselor to wheel me outside in my wheelchair. At that time, in the early 1960s, the camp was located at the 4-H Club in Oak Bluffs. Drivers and passengers saw me crying as they whizzed by in their cars. Hellcat eventually ended my homesickness by embarrassing me in front of strangers. I understand that this stern measure my seem cruel at first glance, but it was precisely this attitude which earned Hellcat such love and respect from the many people with disabilities whom she came to know. She held us all to the same high expectations, and spared us unnecessary pity.
As Peter, who has spina bifida, and I, who has cerebral palsy, grew older, we began to realize how much Mrs. Lamb did for us and other people with disabilities. There were no blueprints in 1953 for creating a camp for people with disabilities when she established Camp Jabberwocky. The medical community back then actually thought such a camp would be detrimental to the disabled population.
“The tenacity with which she faced obstacles when she first had the idea is to start Camp Jabberwocky still inspires me,” Faith Carter said.
My friend and fellow camper Faith first met Mrs. Lamb in 1974. Hellcat came to Faith’s house to interview her for a spot at Camp Jabberwocky that summer. The interview was going very well until Mrs. Lamb saw that Faith was chewing something. Hellcat asked, “Are you chewing gum?” Faith, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, said, “My daddy has more. Do you want some?”
Mrs. Lamb told the six-year-old “Proper young ladies do not chew gum!”
After the interview, Faith wondered how she did and thought perhaps her gum chewing hurt her chances of going to camp.
“A few weeks later, my mom and dad got a letter in the mail, “ she said. “I was going to be a Jabberwockian!” In the 38 summers which followed, Faith established many wonderful friendships at Camp Jabberwocky.
Like many at Camp Jabberwocky, Mrs. Lamb taught Arthur Bradford the valuable lesson of speaking your mind. “She accomplished so much by not accepting the standard answers and asking “why not?,” he said. “She was never afraid of rocking the boat.”
I agree with my friend Arthur, who began as a counselor in 1993 and now is on the camp’s board of trustees. Rocking the boat is a tradition at Camp Jabberwocky.
It seemed that the definitions of “no” and “impossible” were not in Hellcat’s dictionary. So she never accepted when people said “it can’t be done.” To her, almost anything was doable.
Peter O’Hara said Hellcat had no problem getting unwilling campers to exercise and attend physical therapy — she just disguised it as fun activities such as swimming and horseback riding.
Jeff Caruthers, who has been involved with Camp Jabberwocky since 1974 and is also a trustee, recalls his fondest memory of Mrs. Lamb as the summer that she helped him give his camper physical therapy. “Helen taught me what to do and my camper received therapy daily,” Jeff said. “By the end of [that] summer he walked unattended around the concert hall during our end of camp performance.”
Besides pushing campers’ limits, Mrs. Lamb encouraged us to reach our life goals. For example, she inspired Faith to get her master’s degree in speech pathology. And with her full support, Hellcat gave me the courage to study journalism at Southeastern Massachusetts, now known as the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth.
“She opened up so many new worlds for so many people,” said Faith. “I’ll never have the impact that Helen Lamb has had, but then again, there will never be another Helen Lamb.”
The Flatbread Pizza Company is having a fund-raiser tonight for the camp. A portion of the cost of each pizza sold will be donated to Jabberwocky. Faith Carter and I will be there with our counselors, and we would love to see you there. Please come eat some pizza for Hellcat. She would most definitely approve, provided you use good manners!
Paul Remy is a freelance writer who lives in Fall River.