My brother Chris at summer camp, 25 years ago
I have dedicated the Noah's Ark Exhibition to my brother Chris. Those of you who have purchased the Exhibition Guide now know that. I wanted to wait until this week to share my story on the inspiration for the show.
When I was 11 years old, my brother Christopher was born with Down Syndrome. My parents did not know much about what to expect. My mother knew that Christopher was going to change our family forever. We would all have to learn and grow with him. Hoping to introduce us to children with multiple physical and mental challenges, my mother enrolled me and my younger sister Aimée in the counselor in training program at our local Kamp for Kids.
Kamp for Kids was founded by an amazing woman and mother, Judy Hoyt. Dick and Judy’s son Rick was born as a spastic quadriplegic with cerebral palsy as a result of oxygen deprivation to his brain at the time of birth. Dick and Judy were advised to institutionalize Rick because there was no chance of him recovering and little hope for Rick to live a “normal” life. My parents were advised to do the same with my brother. Dick and Judy fought to integrate Rick into the public school system, pushing administrators to see beyond his physical limitations. They would take Rick sledding and swimming, and even taught him the alphabet and basic words, like any other child. My parents and my siblings did much the same with my brother Chris. Dick and Rick went on to form the incredible Team Hoyt.
Judy realized that there were no summer camps in the area where handicapped kids could experience swimming, exploring, learning, growing and singing camp songs alongside their able-bodied peers. She decided to change that when she started Kamp for Kids in my hometown of Westfield, Massachusetts.
I worked at Kamp for Kids as a counselor from my 12-year-old summer until my graduation from college in 1990. I worked one-on-one with children with autism, spina bifida, deaf, blindness, emotional disorders–you name it. I learned compassion and caring, love and acceptance for our kids and their families. Most of all, I learned that our kids wanted to be silly, have fun and experience summer camp just like any other kid.
My experience working with handicapped children greatly influenced the kind of teenager I became and the adult I grew up to be. I am happy that my Mom signed us up to work at camp that first summer. I have wonderful memories from the time I spent as a counselor, a swim instructor and lifeguard. Using sign language to teach a deaf child to swim required creativity, encouraging autistic kids to participate in group activity was a challenge, and opening your heart and mind to people with disabilities came with the territory.
Lyrics to Rise and Shine, click to enlarge
The song Rise and Shine reminds me of those summers spent with our kids. We sang it on the bus, we sang it in the morning circle, we sang it in the building on rainy days, we sang it as we walked from one activity to another. The kids loved the animals, the rhymes, and repeating the chorus over and over.
When I was asked to create 50 pieces of art for this show, I couldn’t think of anything better than 25 sets of twosies twosies. A show of this magnitude should have a theme, a central focus, a personal connection for the artist. I have been creating animal portraits for some time. Being a New England girl, I began with cows, roosters, sheep and other barnyard friends. For this show, I pushed the limits of my imagination, and my comfort zone to include animals such as degu, box turtles, ostrich and chameleons, just to name a few.
My brother, my father and my daughter in Orlando about four years ago
I dedicate this show to Chris. Having a brother with Down Syndrome changed my life, and I believe I am a better person for it. Building an ark is quite an undertaking. There were times when growing up with my brother could have been described as much the same. He often pushed us to the limits of our patience and abilities, but he also made us laugh until we cried, and he made us happy to hug him tight when he exclaimed “I just love you.”
My brother now travels from MA and attends camp
for two weeks each summer in Florida, right
around the corner from my house!