Signs of new life |

Signs of new life

Charles Agar
Jordan Curet/Aspen Times Weekly
ALL | The Aspen Times

Kids psyched up for an adventure speak the same language, and “Me first!” looks the same in American sign language as it sounds coming in shrieks from an 8-year-old who wants to climb a sheer rock wall.The Aspen Camp of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Old Snowmass (formerly the Aspen Camp School for the Deaf) is celebrating 40 years of offering those very opportunities to deaf children. The camp is also entering something of a new era, with physical improvements and programmatic expansions.Reed Harris founded the camp in 1967 on 17 acres along Snowmass Creek Road as a place for deaf children from around the U.S. to learn about the outdoors, and since the days when John Denver held an annual concert to raise money, the camp has been a special place for deaf and hard-of-hearing kids ages 8 to 18, organizers said.Now under new management, organizers hope the Old Snowmass campus will continue to be a home to top-notch summer camps as well as a year-round facility open to the community.

Clint Woosley, the camp program coordinator, has a knack for getting people’s attention.Bearded and quick with a smile, the outdoorsman and certified ropes course instructor from Maryland was born deaf but can read lips and hears with the help of hearing aids.On a recent day of rock climbing near Lincoln Creek, waving his hands in the air as other counselors tapped children on their shoulders to get their attention, Woosley busied himself wrangling some 25 campers between the ages of 8 and 11. Woosley pointed two fingers at his eyes – a sign for “eyes on me” – and made a show of mock exasperation until he had all eyes on him.

“I’m not going to lie to you. Climbing is dangerous,” Woosley told the kids in American sign language while a counselor translated. “People get hurt every year. That’s why we wear our harnesses and always have a helmet.”Some of the kids watch Woosley, others listen to the translation and some get a bilingual talk. The campers are an eclectic mix; some communicate mostly through sign language, others have lesser degrees of hearing loss or implants that enable them to hear and speak, and still others are children of deaf adults (CODA) or siblings of deaf children (SODA) and hear clearly but also can sign.Communication is a big part of the camp, but the experience is more about challenges in nature and having a good time. That’s where Woosley comes in.”It’s my job to make sure the kids have fun. That’s not hard,” Woosley said as he playfully swatted a camper on the helmet and lifted him up by the harness to see if he was ready to climb.The kids took on a rock face called Fast Food, top-rope climbing a route dubbed Finger Food, a 40-foot vertical crack with a tricky lay-back move at the start and challenging handholds.If the deaf children are facing the rock, Woosley said, then they can’t hear instructions or warnings. So Damien Spellane and Mitch Curtis, two college-age instructors, both deaf, watch the climbers closely – Spellane on bottom belay and Curtis standing on a rock shelf halfway up the route to give the climbers direction.But these campers are practiced at hanging on harnesses from high places. These kids have slid down a 385-foot zip line high above Snowmass Creek, and have packed into the backcountry for a night of camping.The first climber scrambled to the top of the route in just a few minutes.

Rock climbing is just one addition to the camp curriculum. After 22 years of leadership under director B.J. Blocker, who left in 2006, the camp is taking new direction under Judith Cross.”We don’t want to throw out something that is working and valuable,” Cross said. “We want to enhance it.”Programs for deaf children at the camp have always been about “creating confidence and independence,” but Cross hopes to up the ante on those challenges, fashioning a program something like Outward Bound, and including a diverse population of deaf people. She hopes to winterize the campus and open the doors to other groups.

And changing organizations is nothing new to the executive director. A corporate executive with experience at the marketing helm of major companies such as Clorox, Cross said, “I know how to create an identity and launch something new. And in many ways that’s what we’re doing at this camp.”Cross, a mother of a deaf adult daughter, moved to Aspen four years ago and joined the board of the camp. A year ago she became executive director, overseeing the $550,000 annual budget, steering the three-person (including herself) year-round staff and some 20 summer workers.After the camp’s 2006 season was canceled for campus upgrades, 2007 saw more than 100 kids at the Old Snowmass campus learning backpacking skills, whitewater rafting, horseback riding, canoeing or navigating the camp’s extensive ropes course, which recently received a $10,000 makeover.Tuition for summer sessions ranges from $1,200 to $1,800 depending on the camp, and there are scholarships available.”It’s not just a fun experience. There’s a design to it,” Cross said.In keeping with the Roaring Fork Valley’s reputation as a fly-fishing Mecca, Cross hopes deaf kids can learn too, starting with casting practice in the camp pond and graduating to pulling trout out of Snowmass Creek.Other programs get kids involved more generally in valley life, from attending events at the Given Institute to a day spent at Computers for Kids, a Glenwood Springs nonprofit where children have a chance to build their own computers.In the future, Cross hopes to integrate a filmmaking program into the camp.”We want to make sure they leave this camp with skills they can use elsewhere,” Cross said.

As with eyesight, there are levels of hearing loss. Many deaf people can hear low frequencies and guttural sounds but have a hard time hearing the soft, high-frequency S sounds, Cross said.

American sign language is the common denominator for most people at the camp, Cross said, but many campers and counselors have cochlear implants, for example, and communicate with speech. The ability to develop speech for the deaf and hard of hearing has many factors, she continued, and sometimes extroverted kids or kids who “really want to talk” learn faster.”In the deaf community, people feel very passionate about signing or not signing,” Cross said. “There are many people who do not wish to have their children signed to.”It’s Cross’s goal to cater to everyone in the deaf community. And that’s why organizers plan to hold 2008 sessions for aural deaf children who are learning speech.”Our purpose now is broader than ever before,” Cross said. Her hope the camp will become a “common camp for whoever needs it.””The deaf population is simply not big enough to keep this camp filled all the time,” Cross said, and organizers are busy upgrading the campus. A recent donation from Andersen Windows means more buildings are weather-tight, and buildings will be equipped with wheelchair access as more donations come in.”The focus this year has been on upgrading of facilities,” Cross said. “For all practical purposes, we are winterized.”

The upgrades include new rugs and new bridges. And with efficient wood-burning stoves and electric backup, the rustic campus is now open for business in winter.”You cannot be a premiere camp without a premiere facility,” Cross said. “This is the right time to do it.”The camp will host an October session for families of deaf and hard-of-hearing children under the age of 8. There are many camps for the deaf and hard of hearing around the country, Cross acknowledged, but she aims to make the Aspen camp stand out.For more information about the Aspen Camp of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, visit or call (970) 923-2511.Charles Agar’s e-mail address is