Serious Fun

Barretstown CEO Dee Ahern with one of her many visitors to the camp in Co. Kildare.

By Patricia Harty, Editor-in-Chief
August / September 2014

Barretstown, a specially designed camp in Kildare, Ireland, provides therapeutic recreation programs for children with serious illnesses and their families. Founded by Hollywood actor Paul Newman in 1994, and modeled on his renowned Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Connecticut, the camp serves children from Ireland, Britain and throughout Europe. Patricia Harty talks to Barretstown CEO Dee Ahearn.

Tell me about Barretstown.

It’s our 20th anniversary and a big year for us. We have welcomed over 27,000 children and their families through the gates of Barretstown during that time, and on an annual basis we welcome almost two and a half thousand. The camps typically run from March right through to mid November. And the camps that run from March through early summer are what we call Weekend Family Camps. So that’s where mom, dad, siblings, and the sick child all come to camp together.

How important are those family weekends?

When these families come to Barretstown we like to say that they leave their illness at the gate. They arrive at Barretstown and meet other families who have been on the same illness journey that they’ve been on. I’ve had moms and dads tell me that they’ve had moments sitting down in our dining hall at 6pm on a Friday evening as the first time that they’ve actually sat down as a family for a very long time. Because they just haven’t had the opportunity. They’ve been juggling. Mom has been with the sick child, or Dad has been with the sick child, and they’ve had to juggle quite a bit. And they get to have some fun as well and it does help to heal the psychological scars then between the siblings because they get to spend time together, they get to have fun.

And how many of these children can make return trips?

Children can come back to Barretstown up to three times. We always try to give priority to newly diagnosed families, so last year we introduced a hospital outreach program so that if a child found themselves back in hospital again, a camp team would go to that hospital and bring something of camp life to the child’s bedside. We’re currently running that program at Cork University Hospital and it’s been very successful.

And it’s not just Irish children?

The majority of the children are now Irish, but when Paul Newman established Barretstown in 1994, it was his flagship camp in Europe. Prior to that, children were traveling across the Atlantic to go to the camp in Connecticut because word had spread about the impact of the camp and how great it was for the children to attend. So he wanted to set up a camp in Europe and thankfully he chose Ireland as the location.

Do you know why he chose Ireland?

I know he was looking at locations in the U.K. as well, but I think he was very well-supported by the Irish government at the time and they found Barretstown for him and when Paul arrived in Barretstown he completely loved it. He could really see it as a medieval bazaar and he could see the children there, as he said it, “kick back and raise a little hell.” So that was why he chose it.

What is the history of Barretstown?

It was owned by Elizabeth Arden the cosmetics icon and then it was sold to the Westin family who gave it to the Irish government on the proviso that it be used for some charitable purpose. It is leased to us at a rate of one pound a year for 99 years, so we’re very grateful to have that support.

Where does most of your funding come from?

We have a lot of corporate support, so 30-40 percent. Then we have a lot of individual donors, and we have community fundraising, and funds that come through events.

I’d imagine it’s a very expensive proposition.

It is. All of the children come to camp entirely free of charge. So we must raise 4.5 million euro on an annual basis for us to be able to provide our programs. But we’re very conscious of cost at Barretstown and we’ve literally over the last two years embarked on a program to reduce our operating costs while in absolutely no way compromising the integrity of our programs. We’ve been able to do that and all the while welcoming more campers, by working with more volunteers. So it’s been very positive.

We also work very closely with other Irish charities. For example we’ve run events for the Irish Skin Foundation and for Ataxia Ireland; I’ve worked closely with John Irwin of the Jack and Jill Foundation and we’ve been able to run a weekend camp for the Jack and Jill families as well as our own families. Our donors like to see that we’re supporting one another.

And what about hosting children from other countries and language barriers?

It’s a great cultural experience as well for the children who come in from other countries to be able to attend camp with Irish children. It’s fantastic for Irish children too. Last summer we had ten campers travel to Ireland from New York and they were the highlight of the camp because the Irish children thought they were cool, but the New Yorkers of course, thought it was the Irish children who were cool.

I have honestly witnessed children sitting around a table in our dining hall and there could be a child from Greece, a child from the U.K., a child from Spain, sitting with Irish children, and clearly language is no barrier.

How important are these connections?

We’ve been involved with Yale School of Medicine on research and one of the things they’ve found is the connections the children make at camp are hugely important. So this year we’re rolling out a new program called Camp Connections, which is finding ways for us to help the campers stay connected, because, as I said, they can only come out to camp three times. We’ve got a program called Camp on the Move which is going to see us bring camp to regional locations. So it could be a day camp, for example, in Cork or Galway or Belfast where campers can all come together for a day and we’ll run camp. It might be in a hotel setting or in a school setting, and we’re finalizing those details, but really it’s just a way to keep them connected. And the other thing we’re doing this year is we’re bringing out a Barretstown app. Basically everything about Barretstown is the activities they can take part in, so it’s either performing on stage or it’s arts and crafts or it’s canoeing, archery, fishing, horse-riding, so the app is designed around our camp and its various different activities. So there’s games to keep them connected.

So the “serious-fun” aspect is a significant part of these camps?

It is. There’s two sides to it. Obviously it’s fun, and that’s the most important thing for the children, but there’s a serious element to it as well. Our programs of therapeutic recreation are designed to restore a child’s self-confidence and self-esteem. I see all the time at Barretstown children who arrive with their families and their heads are down, they’re apprehensive, they’re shy. And that’s because they’ve been in isolation for very long periods of time, they’ve gone through grueling treatment, the friends they’ve had in school have moved on, they’ve been unable to continue with school, they’ve been unable to continue with their play dates and their sports.

But for the child who’s been sick, they’ve spent long periods of time in hospital, and quite often in isolation. So that’s the serious side of what we do. It’s a challenge of action and discovery. And the children when they come it might be for example that a child is terrified of horses but they want to pet a horse. That evening at the cottage we have Cottage Chat and the councilors will say “What did you achieve today?” “Oh well I petted a horse” “Oh isn’t that great, you didn’t think you were going to do that.” So all the time it’s empowering the child. And honestly I have letters everywhere in Barretstown from parents saying, “Gosh, you gave us back the child we had before this diagnosis of serious illness.” So that’s the serious element, rebuilding the confidence and the self-esteem.

Do you take children across the board? I know not all of them have cancer.

Yes, 90 percent of the children who have come to Barretstown in the past have been oncology patients. But we’ve been working very closely with Jane Pierce, who is our medical director at Cromlin Hospital, to identify other children who could really benefit from our programs. And this year we introduced some new illness groups, so that’s been very successful and now we’re going to add them to our 2014 camp calendar.

Do you have any connection with any of the other camps? There are about 30 now world-wide.

Yes, there are 30 programs world-wide and we have great connections. We take the learnings and the best practices from all our camps and we’ve got a very strong network of CEOs. In fact, recently I was in Ohio. I was co-chairing a Serious-Fun conference of CEOs. And again, it’s a great opportunity for us to get together and talk about new innovation, best practice, new learnings. It’s a fantastic umbrella body for us.

And that was rebranded over the last couple of years. It was called the Hole In the Wall Gang Camp, but there was confusion because the camp in Connecticut is called the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, so it rebranded itself and it’s now called the Serious Fun Children’s Network and there are five camps now in Europe but Barretstown was obviously the first.

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