Aspen Camp for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing eyes summer opening after hiatus

Organization hopeful for the future after two years without campers

Snow covers the grounds of the the Aspen Camp for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Old Snowmass on March 15, 2021.
Kaya Williams/The Aspen Times

It may still look like winter on the snow-covered campus of the Aspen Camp for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Old Snowmass, but summer is on the minds of board members planning for a return to camp operations after a two-year hiatus in programming.

The aim is to launch a “soft opening” later this year with two family camps planned for July and another young adult camp in August, board treasurer Karen Immerso said last week. Youth programs will remain on pause while the organization works through the renewal process for its child care license.

Those programs would mark the first time that campers set foot on the camp’s 17-acre site since 2018.

“That is significant — that is no small goal, in a way,” Immerso said. Summer camp operations paused after the last paid director left in September 2018; the organization was “saddled with debt,” Immerso said.

“We were not sure about the relationships in the Roaring Fork Valley with the camp at that point, but we know that the director was tired and we know that staff were also tired,” she said.

The organization spent 2019 working to get out of that debt. The camp was the beneficiary of proceeds from alcohol sales at the Thursday night concert series on Fanny Hill in Snowmass Village, which helped clear nearly $45,000 in debt; a $145,000 tax lien was also resolved, according to Immerso, but there were no spare funds to run programming that summer.

Then came 2020, and the COVID-19 pandemic along with it.

“Like all other stories, we were shut down and not prepared,” Immerso said. Though the debt was cleared, the camp still wasn’t in a position to hire staff and a director nor to run programming within COVID-19 parameters.

“That was a gift, in a way, because while the camp has been shut down for two years, it’s given us time to do some upgrades on this facility, which is needed, hugely needed,” Immerso said. Facility updates include a “facelift” to the main lodge and a fire-mitigation project.

About three weeks ago, the camp received good news on that fundraising front in the form of a $30,000 gift distributed over two years from The Eisner Foundation.

“That is a little bit of a relief right now,” Immerso said.

The foundation launched in 1996 by Disney’s then-CEO and Chairman Michael Eisner and his wife, Jane, with a focus on intergenerational solutions primarily in Los Angeles; the Eisners are longtime members of the Aspen community with a history of supporting local organizations, including the camp.

“It’s the biggest chunk of money that we’ve gotten since the bar sales (at the Fanny Hill concerts),” Immerso said. “We’re so appreciative of Michael and Jane Eisner, who have been donors over the years.”

The funds this year helped the camp pay for property insurance and fund some of the needs for facility updates, Immerso said.

Fundraising efforts are ongoing, according to Immerso; the top two priorities this year are recruiting more board members and raising money to work toward a financially sustainable model for the camp, she said.

Any camp programming that takes place this summer will run on an entirely volunteer basis, though the goal is to eventually hire paid staff again.

“The fundraising is not just to bring the camp back to life this year but for us to create a longer-term vision of hiring a director, being able to hire staff again, and continue to manage this facility that … is constantly costing money,” Immerso said.

That longer-term vision extends beyond this summer — and future summers — of camp programming; two years ago, the organization had hoped to expand operations into a year-round school for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community, but that could take five to 10 years to achieve, Immerso said.

“If we can run the three camps this summer … then we will feel like we’re moving forward with accomplishing our goals,” Immerso said.

Volunteer support from the community will help bring the camp closer to that target of summer operations, Immerso said. She’s hoping to bolster the list of volunteers for upcoming opportunities, including service days tentatively scheduled for mid-April that will focus on facilities work; participants can be signing or hearing or both.

“Whatever the motivations might be, we’re so in need of support, and reaching out to the local community right now is one piece in the larger puzzle,” Immerso said.

As the board looks toward a return to operations, Immerso hopes volunteer recruitment and signs of reopening will help restore the camp’s relationship with the community after two challenging years. It’s an ongoing effort that will continue as summer approaches and camp organizers set their eye on the future.

“I know that they’re really cheering for us,” Immerso said. “I also know that we need to do some repair in terms of letting the community know that we have the best of intentions and that we are working really hard as a volunteer board.”


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