Aspen Camp works to rebuild, reconnect with Roaring Fork community
On Sunday afternoon, about 20 people stood in a local art gallery drinking wine, eating snacks and conversing in small groups.
The scene seemed typical for a gallery space. But for the group gathered, the occasion was one they’d been anticipating for over a year: the rebirth announcement of the Aspen Camp of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, a 52-year-old nonprofit based in Old Snowmass aimed at empowering the deaf and hard of hearing community.
In November 2018, the camp suspended its operations in response to receiving a $145,000 federal tax lien notice for roughly two years’ worth of unpaid payroll taxes, as previously reported.
On Sunday, in addition to the event at Harvey Preston Gallery, the nonprofit announced that its offer to settle that lien had just been accepted the day before by the IRS at a price “greatly reduced” from that of the original notice, and that its three-member board has been working over the past year to pay off its debts, revitalize its year-round programming and brainstorm ways to do more for both the deaf community and the Roaring Fork Valley, despite its “radio silence.”
“A lot people have questions because there hasn’t really been anything about the camp out since last year,” said Eric Kaika, current treasurer for Aspen Camp. “We don’t want to be out of mind, we want to tell the valley what we’re doing and to restore the belief in and integrity of the camp.”
A SENSE OF BELONGING
A few days before the Sunday event, Kaika toured the expansive Aspen Camp grounds just off Snowmass Creek Road and reflected on his time there as an employee from 2008 to 2010.
He pointed out a room full of costumes and theater props that used to be a computer lab, old pottery wheels, the area where the camp’s ropes and zip line course used to be and an art room with walls decorated in colorful inscriptions of dozens of names, some he said he recognized.
“The deaf community has never really had a campus like this for us. It creates a sense of ownership,” Kaika said. “Some of what happens here could never happen in school or in a controlled environment. It really is magical.”
Over his two years at Aspen Camp, Kaika said he witnessed the immense growth deaf and hard of hearing campers have experienced for decades in Old Snowmass through spending time with their peers and deaf community leaders from across the country, building confidence and communication skills.
And for one of those veteran campers, Aspen area native Christy Smith, without the exposure to American Sign Language and to deaf culture she received through Aspen Camp as a kid, she doesn’t know where she’d be today.
“No one signed in my family, so the first signing exposure I had was at camp,” Smith said. “Most people and doctors think of hearing loss as a medical thing but they forget about the social and support aspects, too … many kids are not born into the deaf culture so they have to learn from somewhere else.”
According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, about 2 to 3 of every 1,000 children in the United States are born with a detectable level of hearing loss, and more than 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents.
Smith, who started losing her hearing at 1 year old, is one of those children, and said she was first exposed to the deaf community and culture through Aspen Camp.
From attending summer and winter programming first as a camper, to working with campers on and off as a staff member and board member, to now continuing to offer her support as an adult, Smith said she’s been involved with Aspen Camp her whole life and is passionate about its rebirth.
Without places like Aspen Camp for deaf and hard of hearing children to learn how to communicate with their peers and the outside world, and to relate to each other through similar and shared experiences, Smith feels it’s hard for them to thrive as people.
“If I never went to camp, if I never went to school, where would I be? Where would the other hearing loss kids like me be?” said Smith, who attended the Model Secondary School for the Deaf in Washington, D.C., then Gallaudet University, and now works as an American Sign Language teacher.
“Through camp, you meet friends you can relate to for the first time, you build connections all over the country. … That’s why it was so devastating for the deaf community to find out the camp was struggling,” Smith said.
When asked how she learned about the Aspen Camp’s financial problems, Smith said they were a long time coming.
Smith said she believed the nonprofit’s No. 1 priority in the past was to ensure campers could afford to attend the summer and winter programming, and that she felt some of the other maintenance and logistical costs slipped through the cracks.
Kaika said he also learned of rumors about the camp’s financial struggles, but that it wasn’t until after he found out Lesa Thomas, the previous executive director, resigned last fall that he felt something was wrong.
Shortly after Thomas left, Kaika said he reached out to rejoin the Aspen Camp leadership, which is when he really learned about the nonprofit’s financial troubles — including the lien, other debts and the zero balance of the nonprofit’s endowment fund — and grew determined to get it back on its feet.
Since February, Kaika has been working on the Aspen Camp board alongside Ryan Commerson, board president, and Karen Immerso, board vice president, to revitalize the camp’s mission and programming.
Commerson and Immerso served on the board last year when the federal tax lien came to light, but said they weren’t involved in the decision-making that led to the financial turmoil.
According to Commerson, he’s learned over his two years on the board that the camp hadn’t been managed well financially in the past and that its relationship with the community was on a rapid decline for over a decade, two things he knows have to change for the camp to succeed.
“To ensure that what happened in the past doesn’t happen again, we need to establish a collective accountability,” Commerson said via email. “This is where the relationship with the (Roaring Fork) Valley community comes in. We will build our programming with roots in valley partnership.”
Together, the board trio has been working toward Aspen Camp’s near-future focus, which is to create programming in collaboration with other nonprofits and businesses up and down the Roaring Fork to offer deaf and hard of hearing kids specific skills enhancing opportunities, like weeklong mountain biking, whitewater rafting, filmmaking and STEM camps.
Once those programs build momentum and support as early as this summer, the board hopes to start a year-round school for deaf and hard of hearing children on the Aspen Camp grounds, which would be the only school of its kind in the U.S. managed by the deaf community.
“The board understands that the camp has to evolve and be much more responsive to a rapidly changing world,” Commerson said. “We are turning the traditional ‘disability’ model on its head. Instead of being content with receiving, we are determined to give back and actively participate in the valley’s growth.”
Although Aspen Camp is looking to create more partnerships, gain more visibility and do more to give back, part of what’s kept the nonprofit afloat over the past year is its longstanding collaboration with Snowmass Village and Aspen Skiing Co. to provide and serve alcohol at the town’s Thursday night summer concert series.
Since 2013, Aspen Camp has paid for the liquor license and alcohol inventory for the weekly Snowmass concerts, worked with Skico employees to serve attendees and collected the profit made from the beverage sales.
According to Julie Hardman, special events manager with Snowmass Tourism, this past summer wasn’t much different. Hardman said the town didn’t host the camp’s annual benefit concert, which is usually held on a Saturday over the summer, but that Aspen Camp committed to handling the alcohol sales just as in years past.
“It’s amazing they pulled it off with the situation they’re in. It’s a huge commitment,” Hardman said. “The camp is an important piece of our community and we’d love to see it come back even bigger and better in the future.”
On Sunday, the Aspen Camp board said it was grateful for the opportunity to partner with Snowmass during the summer concert series this past season and hopes to continue its partnership moving forward.
But the board hopes to do even more within the community through its programming revamp this summer, and is working on finding more businesses and nonprofits to collaborate with for its new specialized camp series planned for as early as June 2020.
“There’s no reason we shouldn’t all be working together,” Kaika said of Aspen Camp collaborating with other valley groups. “There’s a lot of mutual overlap and it’s another way to give our kids a positive experience, give a new experience to the different organizations and show the community we can all work together.”
Overall, the board aims to continue Aspen Camp as a place where deaf and hard of hearing kids receive an authentic education, connect with their peers and develop confidence in a space filled with natural beauty.
“The Roaring Fork Valley is a gem. It’s gorgeous out here, complete with world-class activities and premiere institutions,” Commerson said. “Deaf people are traditionally disenfranchised. So, if we provide them with the best of the best, they will be able to achieve their best, yes?”
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Many members of the community wrote to laud the former Skico executive and city councilman for his friendship, dedication to family and community-minded spirit over more than two decades in Aspen.