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Unconditional love, acceptance, intense human connection.

These are just three of the many things that make Camp Jabberwocky so special, according to Gabi Cortez, a counselor since 2016.

When describing Jabberwocky — a small summer camp in Vineyard Haven, Martha’s Vineyard — has to offer, Cortez went on with emotion in her voice. “If someone is searching for a place to feel really, really loved and accepted … I’ve never been to a place more loving and accepting of all people.”

Why is this? Because “Jabberwocky offers a space where someone who goes through the world feeling different, doesn’t feel different,” she says. Camp Jabberwocky is a summer camp created for any and all people — beginning at ages as young as 13 and as old as 65 — with special needs. “Any way that someone moves — no matter how they move — they can access anything at camp,” says Cortez. From wheelchair accessibility, to providing counselors with special training, any and every accomodation is made at Camp Jabberwocky to ensure all campers get the summer they want and deserve.

Beyond physical accessibility and inclusion, though, Cortez emphasized the judgment-free zone offered to “people who get judged every [other] day of their lives.” Camp Jabberwocky offers a world that people with special needs wouldn’t otherwise be able to find, and it is a world that goes beyond the basics of accommodating disabled people. The originality and exceptionalism of Jabberwocky includes an “intense human connection” between camper and counselor that Cortez spoke passionately about.

“You’re living and moving and enjoying life with people who are so different in the way that they think, express themselves, and physically move,” she says. “But everyone has the same goals. Everyone laughs, everyone has the capability to feel joy and sadness.”

The connection, she continued, comes in when it becomes difficult for counselors and campers to fully communicate and understand each other. “Sometimes you don’t know when or how or why someone’s feeling a certain way, so it’s just this intense human connection where you are part of the same experience. And every single moment, you are trying to connect through joy and through a common purpose of wanting to feel joy.”

Cortez also notes, though, that connections are extremely individual experiences and are sometimes not created with every camper. “With some people you never feel that connection, and that’s okay. And knowing that’s okay is also part of it,” she adds.

In fact, a large part of being a counselor at Jabberwocky involves coming to terms with the reality of working with people who have special needs. Cortez emphasized the importance of being comfortable with failure because the whole experience of being a counselor is about learning to understand someone who does not communicate in a traditional way. “There are a lot of tears” in the off-hours at Jabberwocky when counselors have the chance to relax, says Cortez. She admitted that she had never failed to understand an individual so many times before volunteering at Jabberwocky, which often proves to be a frustrating cycle — for both parties — of misunderstanding and miscommunication. However, Cortez was eager to mention that a “click” often happens between camper and counselor. “[The work] is hard,” she admits, “but it’s so rewarding.”

The joy and satisfaction of the connection suddenly made between camper and counselor is not only exciting to counselors, though. As the older sister to a Jabberwocky camper, I can attest that the camper-counselor bond is thrilling — and often life-changing — for campers. My sister has been a camper for many years now, each time forming a new loving relationship that does not end when the summer does. Throughout the year she sometimes writes letters to her counselors and often FaceTimes them; they are always eager to answer her call and see her face. 

As impactful as Jabberwocky is to campers, though, the role it plays in their lives is perhaps even more significant to their parents. 

“They know more about taking care of your kids than you do,” reflected my father, Aaron Fay, when asked about his feelings for Jabberwocky. “And that is something that parents with special needs children do not experience anywhere.” He went on to explain that in hospitals, schools, doctor’s offices, and daycares, people are concerned with things like liability. “They aren’t trained to help a family,” Fay said. “But Jabberwocky knows how to help a family.”

He recalled fondly the first time he went without my mother to drop off my younger sister at the ferry that would take them from Woodshole, Cape Cod to Vineyard Haven. He was stuck by the “disorganization” of it all, but in the most pleasant way. “That’s part of Jabberwocky. They don’t slam you over the head with bureaucracy. It’s easy-come, easy-go,” he said. “They really don’t ask parents for anything. They will just handle anything. They’ll deal with vomiting, incontinence. … they’ll deal with campers who are non-verbal, or crippled. … They’ll just deal with anything that happens.”

Fay was also amazed by a particular phenomenon at Jabberwocky, which is that none of the counselors are paid. In the entire Camp Jabberwocky facility, there is only one paid employee; everyone else is there simply because they want to be.

“Among them,” Fay recalled, “were kids from very privileged families who do not have to spend their summers cleaning up after disabled people.”

He spoke frankly about his inability to comprehend why the Jabberwocky counselors do what they do. When thinking about the flurry of excitement from counselors and campers alike as they board the ferry to Vineyard Haven, he admitted, “[The counselors] were doing that because they get some kind of fulfillment that I don’t recognize. … They are just moved by helping people who need their help, and it is an amazing and incredible thing to witness.”

As both sister and niece to people with special needs, I have never made it my mission to get involved with Jabberwocky. Like my father, I myself find it difficult to understand why some people actively choose to place themselves in that kind of environment, but I am incredibly thankful to those people.

It is not beyond my capabilities, however, to understand how special Jabberwocky is. It is “an unbelievable place” in my father’s words, and even as an outsider, I can see how Camp Jabberwocky fosters and facilitates positive, unique relationships and feelings that will likely last a lifetime.

Still, between both parents and counselors, everybody seems to be at a loss for words when trying to accurately describe the wonders of Camp Jabberwocky. Cortez was sure, though, that “you can’t express Jabberwocky in a way that excludes love.”

Noa Fay

Columbia Barnard '24

I am studying at Barnard College of Columbia University. Some of my academic interests include American politics, Israeli politics, Russian language, and Greek mythology. I am also a passionate opera singer and writer. In January 2020 I published my first novel, One Cruel House, and I hope to publish more.
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