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Camp Jabberwocky

I can’t tell you what’s wrong with Ronnie, although something manifestly is. But it’s easy to tell you one thing that’s right withh Ronnie: He can stand in front of a crowd of 1,500 and sing a hymn with his arms and heart wide open. His voice may be in the middle of the bell curve but you would weep with joy to hear him.

It’s hard to know how to react to Ronnie and the other 50 campers at Camp Jabberwocky. They are all profoundly disabled, from cerebral palsy sufferers twitching in their full-support wheelchairs to those with diminished intellects and emotional inflammations. But you won’t hear words like “disabled,” “sufferer” and “diminished” at Camp Jabberwocky. Not because the place is politically correct. Quite the contrary. No one there pretends that the campers are just like the rest of us. The campers are who they are. But for much of their lives, they’ve been treated as less than what they are, for most of them wear their troubles in their faces and shambling bodies. Shall we call it a human impulse to turn away from them?

And then Ronnie gets on stage. He is accompanied by a local resident who happens to be a well-known pianist. He sings a song and we hear him for exactly who he is, which is more than we thought he was. And that is a joy that will make you weep.

The story of Camp Jabberwocky makes no sense. It was founded 50 years ago on Martha’s Vineyard, although “founded” is too strong a word: Helen Lamb — universally known as Hellcat because of her determination — got it in her head that it’d be good to bring 6-8 people with cerebral palsy to the island for a week or two. So she got a 15-year-old friend of hers to volunteer and together they just did it, schlepping 6-8 kids in wheelchairs down the steps to the beach at Oak Bluffs, taking them on the Flying Horses. No money, no plan. And that’s how Camp Jabberwocky has proceeded and grown for 50 years. No one pays, no one is paid. There’s precious little solicitation. It just happens.

It doesn’t happen in a vaccum. The Vineyard, for all its preppy reputation, has a history of being diverse, open and accepting. For example, when in the 1900s there was an abnormal number of children born deaf, rather than segregating them, the community learned to sign.

But it’s not just the Vineyard. Shall we call it the human impulse to connect once we allow ourselves to?

Here are some photos of the Fourth of July Parade and the 50th anniversary celebration.

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