Aspen Camp in Snowmass celebrates 50 years of enriching deaf community

Erica Robbie
The Aspen Times
A group of middle-school age children at Aspen Camp of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing work on a team building exercise July 22.
Anna Stonehouse/Snowmass Sun |

Cory Jean describes her sons’ experiences at Aspen Camp of the Deaf as invaluable and critical to their sense of belonging.

“Deafness and (American Sign Language) becomes normalized at the camp, which is strengthening for their culture. They get to be in an environment that’s language friendly, communication friendly,” Jean said of her three deaf sons, Brian, Nick and Jack.

“Instead of always being the person that’s on the outside, they’re with their people and their community.”

Nestled in the woods of Old Snowmass, Aspen Camp of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing is the only year-round deaf camp in the world.

“Instead of always being the person that’s on the outside, they’re with their people and their community.”Cory JeanParent of three deaf sons

This summer, the local nonprofit celebrates 50 years of serving the deaf community on an international scale.

Since opening its doors in the late 1960s, the camp has welcomed more than 21,000 deaf people from 47 states and 12 countries, camp director Lesa Thomas said.

On an annual basis, the Aspen Camp awards more than $100,000 in scholarships for children to attend — making the experience possible for families like Jennifer Alka’s. She and two of her children are deaf.

“I always wanted the kids here, but there was always money issues,” Alka said via camp staff interpreter Olivia Barkholz. “I have seven children altogether, so money is always a challenge.”

From Fishers, Indiana, Alka said Aspen Camp provided her family the scholarship needed to send her 13-year-old daughter Jazelina.

“They helped me out a lot, which is really a huge blessing,” Alka said Sunday at the closing day of the camp’s second session. “This is an opportunity for a deaf child to grow.”

Also a mother of a deaf child, Thomas, who’s “spent a lifetime” studying deaf education, said the camp’s greatest impact is “changing peoples’ lives.”

“This is the one place where you belong,” Thomas said. “You don’t have to struggle and you don’t have to worry about fitting in.”

For the children, many of whom hail from urban areas, the camp also is a unique opportunity to experience the outdoors and new activities.

First-time Aspen Camper Mattea King, 10, said via Barkholz, “It’s the best camp ever because there’s more places to go.”

“At other camps, you just stay at the camp, but here we went to the (Glenwood) Hot Springs and everything. It’s the best,” said King, who lives in Maryland. “Nothing was boring here ever. And I really learned a lot. I learned everything. I learned what it’s like to work together.”

One coveted camp tradition since the 1980s, said Aspen Camp marketing director Katie Murch — as well as a favorite among King and other deaf campers — is rafting in the morning, the hot springs visit in the afternoon and ice cream in the evening.

Set along Snowmass Creek, the camp also offers hiking, backpacking, camping, a low and high ropes course, arts and crafts, science lessons, team-building games, communication exercises and more.

“It’s not about being deaf,” Thomas said. “We just want to encourage and inspire kids to be kids. They just happen to be deaf.”

Carbondale resident Reed Harris founded Aspen Camp in 1967 after recognizing the lack of opportunities for his deaf son, Thomas said. A handful of locals, including Tom Sardy and Lt. Gen. Bill Martin, helped Harris build the original structure, which still serves as the camp’s main headquarters.

The Rotary Club of Aspen also played a major role in establishing the camp, Thomas said, as well as Aspen’s “Shorty” Pabst, who initially leased and later donated its property.

In its inception, Aspen Camp featured one building where campers and staff members played, dined and bunked.

Today, the 17.5-acre campus boasts nine buildings to accommodate more than 100 deaf campers annually.

While Aspen Camp has experienced substantial growth and change over the past 50 years, one constant is the camp’s source of funding and support: donations and volunteers.

Aside from its nonprofit status, nearly three-fourths of the campers rely on scholarships to attend camp, Thomas said.

“We do struggle with finances,” she said, “and we do rely on donations from the community and volunteers.”

Three ways to help benefit Aspen Camp, Thomas said, are through financial contributions, volunteering and “introductions.”

“Introduce us to people,” Thomas said. “Deaf campers, donors, people who can help us out and people who we can help.”


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