Aspen School Camp for the Deaf trying to regain community clout with annual picnic in Snowmass

A group of middle-school age children work on a team building exercise at the Aspen Camp of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing last summer.
Anna Stonehouse/Snowmass Sun

The Aspen Camp School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing is on a mission to regain its mojo in the community’s eye.

The camp is doing the same great programs and providing the same great services to the youth who come from throughout the country each summer. Since it opened in 1973, it’s helped deaf and hard of hearing children and young adults realize there’s a world for them that is inclusive rather than exclusive, said camp executive director Lesa Thomas. It’s always used nature and the outdoors as a teaching tool and empowering setting.

“The camp changes lives in a big way,” Thomas said.

What’s changed is the camp’s visibility in Aspen. It’s understandable, Thomas said, because while it used to be one of a few prominent nonprofit organizations in the 1970s and ’80s, now there are hundreds groups vying for the hearts, minds and wallets of local donors.

The camp used to be high on the community radar because its annual picnic was the can’t-miss event of the summer starting in the 1970s. John Denver took the camp under his wing in 1976 and regularly headlined the event. He recruited Jimmy Buffett, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and other performers.

The deaf camp’s picnic was to Aspen what Mountain Fair is now to Carbondale, said one longtime Roaring Fork Valley resident who has regularly attended both.

One of the goals of the “small but mighty staff” is to restore a stronger connection with the community.

“I feel we’re poised to come back,” Thomas said.

There is a recent sign she’s right and further opportunities for the community to make that connection. The deaf camp received an outpouring of community support last winter when some bad eggs renting cabins during the Winter X Games vandalized the kitchen and other facilities. Local residents responded with cash donations and in-kind services.

“The community rallied and we got things fixed,” Thomas said. “Without them we would have been sunk.”

There’s an opportunity to provide further assistance to the deaf camp for its annual Volunteer Weekend, Friday through Sunday. The camp needs help clearing brush off trails, placing directional signs, using a chipper to place wood chips on marshy sections of the trails and sprucing up the fabulous 17-acre campus on the banks of Snowmass Creek.

There is an orientation and dinner Friday, followed by work Saturday and Sunday. Tools, meals and lodging (if needed) will be provided. As many as 150 people have showed up for volunteer weekend in past years. The camp needs volunteers to RSVP prior to Friday so the staff knows how many people they are cooking for. Go to weekend to register.

The deaf camp staff is already in full swing for the summer. The four full-time, year-round staffers hired 25 summer counselors. The summer staff members, all deaf or hard of hearing, are undergoing intensive training this week before the first of 67 campers arrive later this month.

The campers are coming from around the nation and the United Kingdom, said Katie Murch, the camp’s marketing and strategic director.

The camp has hosted campers from 47 states and 17 countries over the years.

“One of the most popular features to our parents is that the majority of our staff are deaf,” Murch said. “This allows campers to truly connect to adults that are ‘like them.’ Many deaf children who are isolated often think their life will end somehow at the age of 18 because they have never met a deaf adult before. Boy, are they in for a treat.”

The camp is held in three sessions tailored for high school, middle school and elementary school aged kids. The high school kids stay the longest at 18 days.

Beyond the volunteer weekend, the community can help by contributing to the scholarship fund, Murch said. More than half of the campers come on scholarships. This year more than $40,000 in scholarships was awarded.

While the picnic hasn’t been held since 2001, the deaf camp revived concerts as a fundraiser in 2013. It is working with Snowmass Village Tourism to present the Spin Doctors on July 21, at 4 p.m. at Fanny Hill. Mandy Harvey, a deaf performer, will be the opening act at the Deaf Camp Benefit.