Reviving “a place where people feel like they can belong”

Aspen Camp for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing hosts volunteer service days

Olivia Stein removes painter's tape from a door in the main lodge at the Aspen Camp for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Old Snowmass on April 11, 2021.
Kaya Williams/The Aspen Times

For Olivia Stein, the Aspen Camp for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing is “a place where people feel like they can belong.”

“Aspen Camp holds a special place in my heart,” she said through interpreter and Aspen Camp board member Karen Immerso while working at the site earlier this month. “It has helped me find my deaf identity.”

Stein was onsite to participate in the first in a series of volunteer service days on April 10-11 focused on facilities work as the camp looks toward a possible reopening this summer. This was Stein’s first weekend as a volunteer at the camp, but she has been part of the Aspen Camp community since 2005; she was a camper three times and a counselor twice.

“I don’t want the deaf community to lose this place,” she said.

But even if the 26-year-old Denver-area resident hadn’t been a camper and a counselor years ago, “I would still feel inspired” to volunteer, she said.

“This camp doesn’t only belong to the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community,” she said. “This camp also belongs to the people in this valley.”

The volunteer service days at the camp are helping to foster that connection with the Roaring Fork Valley community, according to Immerso. There were about a dozen volunteers that Saturday and eight Sunday, Immerso said; several came on behalf of the Rotary Club of Aspen, a longtime supporter of the camp.

“Reconnecting with this local community is going to take a little while,” Immerso said. “But the fact that the Rotarians came out … is just this beautiful step forward in rebuilding some relationships in the valley with people who live here and are willing to be volunteers, along with others, to move the whole thing forward.”

The camp and the Rotary have decadeslong ties to each other, according to Aspen Rotary founding member and 81-year-old camp volunteer Craton Burkholder.

Reed Harris established the Aspen Camp in 1967 to create new opportunities for his son, who was deaf. Harris also is a founding member of the Aspen Rotary, which was chartered in 1971 in part to support the camp.

He and fellow Rotarians — among them Tom Sardy, J Baxter, Ralph Melville, Jim Grinnell and Gen. Bill Martin — were all “instrumental” in developing the camp, as was Aspenite Harald “Shorty” Pabst, who donated the land, Burkholder said.

An annual picnic with live music garnered hundreds of thousands of dollars for the camp in its early years; performers including John Denver and Jimmy Buffet made appearances.

“Valley-wide, people have supported the club religiously and the deaf camp is a part of it,” Burkholder said during a break from staining wood doors. But he also sees a need to bolster local funding and broaden local support here in the valley.

“This money is very precious for what they’re doing to revitalize (the camp),” Burkholder said.

Recruiting more board members — especially local members — and fundraising for camp operations remain top priorities as the camp looks toward reopening, Immerso said.

Rotarians will continue to participate in upcoming volunteer service days scheduled in April and May, according to Burkholder. As a longtime Rotarian — one whose favorite organization is the camp, he said — Burkholder appreciates the ongoing relationship between the Rotary and the camp and looks forward to seeing the camp come back to life after two years without programming.

“It does my heart good to see that,” he said.

Burkholder isn’t alone in looking forward to the reopening.

“The biggest reward for all of us will be when the camp reopens and we can see kids running around,” said board member Zeph Williams, 45, of Glenwood Springs.

He first learned about the camp a couple of years ago while attending an American Sign Language event with his daughter, Sophia (now 14), who has a passion for ASL.

Williams has been working on the facilities for months and contributing his skills and expertise in construction (he also works for Koru, a local homebuilding company). Witnessing the transformation of the main lodge, which has existed on site since the early years of the camp, has been “amazing,” he said.

“It’s pretty cool to be able to work on all these buildings that have so much history,” Williams said.

There’s still plenty more to be done and work is “ongoing,” according to Williams. Work on the main lodge and wildfire mitigation efforts began last year; upcoming projects will likely include work on the bathhouse building and installation of a life-safety alarm system, he said.

“It’s just the beginning,” he said.