At Aspen Camp, the Adventure Begins With Self-Acceptance
Anyone who has ever been to camp remembers the adventure. Sometimes it’s filled with excitement about getting away from home, sometimes there are tears; for many there are both. Regardless of how it starts, by the end of the summer new friendships are formed and memories made that will last a lifetime.
That’s also true of the children who attend The Aspen Camp of the Deaf* and Hard of Hearing, but in many ways even more so. Fast friendships can make new best friends feel like the only people who really get you and your life experience, but imagine if circumstances made that true.
There’s no need to skip to the bottom of the article to look for a reference related to the asterisk in Deaf*. Deaf* is a term created by the nonprofit camp to be inclusive of all the deaf identities, including those who identify as D/deaf, hard of hearing, DeafBlind, late deafened, and everything else. They don’t use terms like hearing loss or hearing impaired, and neither should we, because it’s not a loss. The camp’s mission is to remind everyone that Deaf* does not mean less than.
As you drive over Watson Divide, down Snowmass Creek Road, and into the Aspen Camp, the only year-round Deaf* camp in the world, it’s clear that sound is irrelevant to appreciating the beauty that lies before you. But the eyes aren’t the most important sense for engaging the energy that surrounds this magical place.
Many children who are born Deaf* have parents who can hear. A lucky few go to Deaf* schools, but most are mainstreamed in classes with hearing students. The biggest adventure that Aspen Camp provides isn’t rafting or climbing a mountain, though the beautiful campus does provide lots of access to the outdoors. The biggest adventure for most of the campers is finally connecting to a world that understands them.
Being Deaf* is a ticket to a unique culture and way of looking at the world. The Aspen Camp reminds us that the gap between those who can and those who cannot hear isn’t vertical. Director of Marketing for the camp, Katie Murch, explains that “the biggest challenge to being Deaf* isn’t not hearing. The biggest challenge to being Deaf* is dealing with how the word treats me because I don’t hear.”
If you’ve ever been to a country where you don’t speak the language, you know it can be challenging. For those who hear, most of the unfamiliar words line up with the approach to language we’ve been taught in our own culture—but imagine if there was no way for you to access the language used by everyone around you. Imagine if your whole approach to thought was different from your culture and, with limited role models living your experience, you had to figure most of it out for yourself.
Murch shares that it’s not uncommon for campers to arrive thinking that a normal lifespan for a Deaf* person is about 18 years old. It’s a logical conclusion for a child who has never met a Deaf* adult. Mainstreaming has its advantages, but its biggest disservice lies in not providing the child with Deaf* role models. Aspen Camp for the Deaf* and Hard of Hearing is changing that for its campers with predominantly Deaf* counselors and staff.
Do they need to take special precautions to ensure the safety of the campers? Murch notes that a child is never more safe than under the watch of someone whose attention is predominantly visual. Unburdened by sound, they see everything.
According to the World Federation of the Deaf, there are 70 million D/deaf people in the world and approximately 80 percent of them have no access to education of any sort. Only one to two percent of the world’s D/deaf population get training in sign language, which is vital for establishing their important cultural and linguistic identity.
The most amazing thing, according to Murch, is watching the kids arrive. It only takes a few days for them to develop confidence in signing. The activity is contagious and can transform a previously “shy” kid. Murch also lights up when she describes kids getting up on the stage to perform for the first time. Hollywood actress Marlee Matlin notwithstanding, most mainstreamed Deaf* children are never afforded this opportunity.
The camp offers three summer programs divided by age group, and takes up to 28 children at a time. Fifty percent come back the following year. They also offer a family camp for hearing parents with Deaf* children, and hearing siblings of Deaf* campers are allowed to join for the winter sessions.
Adventures range from backpacking to skiing to rafting and stand up paddleboarding (SUP). The campus has high ropes courses and obstacles that challenge balance and dexterity. Cabins sleep up to 60 campers and the numbers can expand if part of the group is willing to rough it in tents.
Not just for kids, the camp offers a Womxn’s retreat over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend and an Xtreme Retreat during the X-Games. They also offer a You Camp, when any group, hearing or Deaf*, may rent the space.
But you don’t have to plan your own retreat to get involved. There are volunteer opportunities that range from driving campers around the valley to driving the long-term strategy for the organization. Helping out with one of the adult retreats is also a great way to learn to sign, though they are planning to offer an online class this fall.
Of the 72 percent of campers needing scholarships, each one is required to raise a portion of the funds on their own, a means of encouraging self-sufficiency before camp even begins. Their profiles are listed on AspenCamp.org, but if you can’t decide, donations can be made to a general fund.
A benefit in Snowmass on July 15 will mark the 50th anniversary of the camp. Started in the 1960s with the help of John Denver and Jimmy Buffet, and presented by Jazz Aspen Snowmass, this free concert offers music, food, and an opportunity to lend your support. The headliner is Lukas Nelson.
Campers come from rural communities and inner cities, but all leave with new ideas of what’s possible and where they are going. Murch shared the story of a few boys from a rough area of Detroit who arrived with limited connections in their community and no understanding of things we take for granted in the valley. After an overnight under the stars, one of the boys found her immediately and signed his excitement at the vastness of the world.
“It’s so hard to send them back into their environments,” she confesses. The biggest and scariest adventure for many of them is going back home.
On the Aspen Camp for the Deaf* and Hard of Hearing website, the question is posed: What if the cure to cancer is locked in the brain of a Deaf* child who has yet to be seen? With programs like these, it is clear that the future is being unlocked for the campers one incredible life adventure at a time.