Camp Jabberwocky’s History

Sitting on the beach in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard, Helen Lamb, (shortly thereafter called Hellcat, by all who had to work with her or live with her),  watched her three young children frolicking in the water. It was the summer of 1952. She had recently been widowed and had brought her three children from England to America to live near her mother and sister in New Bedford. She’d just been hired by the Fall River Training Center as a speech therapist where she worked with children with cerebral palsy and other disabilities.

“I started thinking about all those children I worked with sitting in their hot apartments with little chance to even get outside, as they had to be carried just about everywhere. (This was long before the Americans with Disabilities Act made anything accessible; barriers were everywhere). And here were my three children running and laughing and frolicking in the waves, having the time of their lives. It just wasn’t right.

What about bringing those children I worked with to Martha’s Vineyard for a few weeks in the summer? An overnight summer camp for children with disabilities. Why not? Well, I soon found out why not. Everyone I talked to at the clinic, doctors, nurses ,therapists, thought I was daft. Apparently it had never been done before. I was told it was, ‘Too dangerous, they could have seizures in the water and drown, too expensive, too difficult, too far away, too soon, too late, too anything and everything.’

The only people who supported the idea were the parents. For the first time in their lives, they’d get a break. So I went to the director of the clinic and told him that I was going to start the camp with or without his support. The parents would take their children to the boat in New Bedford, pay $15 a week, or nothing if they couldn’t afford that, and Ursula and I, a high school volunteer at the clinic, who by some miracle had convinced her parents that this was a good idea, took them to my sister’s little camp ground cottage called, fortuitously, ‘Happy Days’.

We looked like a gang of refugees, walking through Oak Bluffs, the campers who could walk helping to push the campers who couldn’t. We had no car. We cooked on a kerosene stove that frequently sent a flame two feet in the air, campers had to suffer through my cooking which my husband had characterized as either a sacrifice or a burnt offering. We begged old bread from the bakery, we had no shower or bath, you got clean in the ocean. The last night of camp a hailstorm sent golf ball sized hailstones through the roof and we had to put pots on our heads and carry everyone downstairs. We had a wonderful time.”

The next year Hellcat had an offer from William Pinney, who became camp’s first president, to use the 4-H club house up the hill from the camp grounds which was a huge improvement as it had grass and space for playing in, room on the ground floor for beds and a real kitchen in the basement which had only one small problem, when the septic tank overflowed it flooded the basement.

The Martha’s Vineyard Cerebral Palsy Camp stayed there  for eleven years, adding campers and cabins till it became obvious that camp needed a place of it’s very own. So, in 1965, land in Vineyard Haven, just up Greenwood Avenue from the library, was donated by The Grace Episcopal Church because a firecracker of a woman named Margaret Love. She had come to love camp and was able to persuade the congregation to donate five acres of some glorious, wooded, drumlin filled land it owned. That winter a large cabin containing a dining hall, three rooms sleeping eight people each and a kitchen hardly large enough for a family of four, was built, along with a cabin sleeping sixteen. Hellcat was thrilled. She had her own camp on its own land and a community that wanted it to succeed. And it had a new name, Camp Jabberwocky, which Hellcat loved because camp, in her mind, had that thoroughly nonsensical quality of Alice’s adventures. Camp was funny, even hilarious at times. The campers loved it. The  counselors, who were all volunteers, loved it and both campers and counselors came back year after year.

In 2011, on her 97th birthday, Hellcat died. She had watched her idea grow and flourish. That summer she had recited “Jabberwocky” at the camp play, a tradition she cherished, and the next day came to the Camp Jabberwocky spot on State Beach. She couldn’t walk all the way down, but watched the campers and counselors frolicking in the waves, just as she had watched her own children all those years before. “Now, that’s right,” she said.