One year later, Enchanted Hills Camp is hosting programs for more blind campers than ever before.
“Hey!” Ellie exclaims with all the gusto of a self-proclaimed theater kid. “We can do stuff when we’re blind,” she reminds us bluntly, punctuating it with a knowing chuckle.
2018 was Ellie’s third year at camp, and her first teen session, and you can tell it’s been going well. Obsessed with improv, acting and performing – camp is not only a place where she can have fun and perform, but also a place where she can get over the normal grind of feeling like the “weird kid” in school. Talking to her on the fountain lawn this summer, you might never know that this summer camp almost didn’t happen.
One year ago today, the staff of Enchanted Hills Camp grabbed whatever they could hold in their arms and narrowly escaped as wildfire advanced across Mt. Veeder and overtook our 311 forested acres in Napa. If you had asked anyone that night if we would see teens tromping through camp this summer, their answer would have been bleak.
As our evacuated staff waited for news, the hard truths of one of California’s greatest natural disasters emerged. Our staff house had incinerated. The Redwood Grove Theater stage melted into a gnarl of smoldering debris. Worst of all, our rustic but historic lower camp cabins, the summer homes of up to 120 blind and visually impaired children and families for almost seven decades, were destroyed. There was talk of burned wildlife and downed power lines; there was no talk of summer camp.
Winter began and cleanup efforts started in earnest — the devoted staff of Enchanted Hills refused to accept defeat. Slowly, and with great determination, the crew returned one by one to a smokey, smoldering camp and began to rebuild. More than 600 burned trees were felled and carted away, clean water and power was returned, and as spring approached and rains continued to wash the acreage clean, the smell of smoke began to fade.
Today, the parts of camp that still stand are more beautiful and welcoming than ever. We hosted our first rental group since the fires – Justin Siena High School – and will soon reopen bookings for rentals to the general public. Flower gardens, carefully tended by staff and volunteers, have sprung up around the property. A new tile mosaic encircles the fountain on the lawn. Fresh paint, new windows and comfortable new beds promise a better night’s sleep in the lakeside cabins. This weekend, one hundred volunteers joined us for a day of painting, cleaning and clearing debris to ensure that whoever visits camp will find it better and stronger than ever.
The true gratitude comes from campers like Ellie who can explain why having a camp for people who are blind or have low vision is so important. “We build a lot of trust here,” she says, tearing up a bit. “It really does empower you.”
“I’ve definitely matured and realized that I can do anything – that my vision shouldn’t limit what I do. From a young age my parents have told me that, but I’ve never really believed them 100%. People here, we’re all different. We’re all just human beings and we all just want to feel love and feel appreciated for who we are, rather than what we look like or if we use a cane.”
When asked about the 2018 summer at Enchanted Hills, Camp Director Tony Fletcher sums it up in two words: “Extremely successful.” A 29-year veteran of LightHouse, Tony led the EHC team through good spirits, optimism and his signature no-panic attitude towards an inspired comeback that not only resulted in a full schedule of 2018 summer camp sessions – but the highest-attended teen session in our history – with as many as 70 blind and low vision teenagers basking in the glories of summer this July.
“We had outstanding staff and volunteer support,” says Tony, attributing camp’s rapid comeback to a dedicated community effort. “The campers celebrated the rebirth of their beloved camp. It was just a really positive experience all around, for all of us. The reward was the happiness of our campers. Pure and simple.”
Tony is careful to remind us: “We’re not done.”
In total, the heroic efforts of our staff and volunteers have preserved about half of camp’s original capacity to house groups. Now, we need to build back our destroyed facilities and return camp’s capacity to 120 people for peak sessions and community events, as well as the trails, bridges and infrastructure which makes their visits enjoyable.
Over the next year, Enchanted Hills Camp has some high priorities: We need to rebuild the storage barn, construct the shade structure and pool house area, add more outdoor showers, and most importantly, select our architect and present a master plan for the total redesign of our lower camp area. This is a process that will involve architects, the LightHouse board of directors, and of course, you. Community feedback will be an integral part of helping to shape the future of Enchanted Hills Camp.
Whether they’ve been coming to camp for three years or 63 years, there are hundreds of people like Ellie who will return, year after year, thanks to your generosity and support.
CEO, LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired
p.s. Rebuilding Enchanted Hills camp will be an expensive undertaking, as current law mandates that the rebuilt cabins and gathering rooms be far more strongly built and fire-resistant than their predecessors. The LightHouse is grateful to the many camp lovers who have already shown their generosity; if you’re thinking about where your own giving can make a difference for the next century, camp is something you can depend upon.