For new leader at camp for youth with life-threatening illnesses, the job is personal
By Sara Foss
Growing up in rural Ontario, Canada, Alison Wilcox’s sole camp summer experience was non-traditional: a two-week Air Cadet boot camp where she drilled, marched double-time and operated planes.
“I had read about camp, and it was always a dream to be able to go to one,” Wilcox recalled.
When she learned of a job opening at a day camp, Wilcox jumped at the opportunity. It was the summer after her first year at university, and she served as director, supervising a team of counselors. The experience was formative. It set Wilcox on her future career path and opened her eyes to the life-changing magic of summer camp.
“It was amazing to see how much the kids got out of it,” Wilcox, 48, said.
Last August, Wilcox became the second-ever CEO at the Double H Hole in the Woods Ranch in Lake Luzerne. Established in 1993 by actor Paul Newman and upstate amusement park operator and philanthropist Charles R. Wood, Double H provides year-round, specialized programming for children with life-threatening illnesses, including a summer camp that draws hundreds of youths to the southern Adirondacks annually.
For Wilcox, the job is personal.
She has eight siblings, three with disabilities, two of whom died from rare disorders: Walter with genetic condition Williams Syndrome, and Bob, with ring chromosome 13. Both brothers would have qualified for Double H. An older sister, Justine, with Down Syndrome, lives in Canada and “is doing great,” said Wilcox, who moved to the United States 20 years ago.
Wilcox comes to Double H after 11 years at the Girl Scouts of Western New York in Buffalo, where she served as CEO for four years, overseeing four summer camps. Lynn M. Lubecki, her former board president, said the Scouts made “major strides” during Wilcox’s tenure. She completed a master plan for the summer camps and a strategic partnership with a charter school that installed Scout initiatives in entrepreneurship, outdoors, life skills and STEM in programming.
“I’m used to wonderful programs at the Girl Scouts, but I do feel Double H brings something extra that I look forward to learning more about and fostering,” Wilcox said.
Charlie Crew, who chairs the Double H board of directors, said Wilcox has started strong. “We’re very lucky we have such a wonderful leader coming in,” he said. “Especially after somebody who was a legend. Those are always hard roles to replace.” Founding CEO Max Yurenda retired last April after three decades in charge.
Wilcox’s work with the Girl Scouts signaled that she would be a good fit, Crew said, noting that both organizations help children develop confidence and “accomplish things they probably didn’t dream of.”
The children who attend Double H have a broad range of life-threatening conditions, including cancer and blood, cardiac, neurological and neuromuscular disorders. The camp is also free of cost. It is part of the SeriousFun Children’s Network of 30 camps and programs for seriously ill children, also founded by Newman.
Double H offers rustic cabins, indoor and outdoor swimming, a high ropes course, an archery range, horseback riding, boating, fishing, arts and crafts, talent shows, campfires and other traditions. On the last evening of each session, Double H holds a “wish-boat” ceremony, where cabin’s campers make a boat of sticks, flowers and tree bark. They light it on fire and send it out on Lake Vanare.
As Double H CEO, Wilcox will work to ensure that the camp continues to provide high-quality outdoor experiences to children who might not otherwise have access to them.
“Inclusion was so drilled into us,” she said of growing up in her large family. “My mom would always look for an activity all of us could do together.” At the Girl Scouts, Wilcox kept a picture of her and her sister Justine in their Girl Guides uniforms—the Canadian equivalent of Girl Scouts—on her desk.
“All children deserve to have that feeling of being a kid and being able to do all of those same activities,” Wilcox said.
Double H allows the brothers and sisters of Double H campers to attend. Parents can join for family weekends. “This type of program provides a community,” Wilcox said. “It’s an extra support for every member of the family, not just the child. That chance to be a kid applies to the siblings as well as the actual child with the illness.”
Wilcox’s mother died of cancer 17 years ago. “Being able to talk to other parents who understood what she was going through would have been really huge for her,” Wilcox said. “She was alone a lot, and she would have loved that support. Every single one of my brothers and sisters would have just had a ball being here.”
What makes camp safe for the children who come to Double H is a top-notch medical staff.
Double H has a 24-7 medical facility named Paul’s Body Shop, after Newman’s love of cars. Services include respiratory treatments, IV fluids and catheterizations. Albany Medical Center provides licensed physicians for the entire camp session.
The medical team “blends in,” Wilcox said. “They look just like camp counselors.” The team delivers medication and treatments to children in their cabins or when they’re out and about as much as possible.
This collaboration distinguishes Double H from more conventional summer camps, said Jacqui Royael, director of operations. Recruiting nurses and doctors is a major focus, and involves educating them on what they might get out of the experience. “A lot of the nurses and the doctors have said it helps them be a better nurse or better physician,” she said.
Physician openings – between 15 to 20 each summer—fill quickly, but finding the roughly 100 nurses is more challenging, Royael said.
Charlize Lewis, a former camper from Queens who was staff-in-training in 2023, met Wilcox .
“She fit in so naturally,” Lewis, 22, said. “I got the feeling she’s very much in her comfort zone.”
Lewis has sickle-cell anemia. She attended Double H as a child, after learning about it from a social worker during a hospital stay. “As a kid with sickle cell, I felt there was no one who could relate to me,” Lewis said. At Double H, she met kids with chronic illnesses for the first time and discovered that “there are people out there who know what I’m going through, and we can come together as a community.”
“The camp gives you a sense of security,” Lewis said, “a feeling of being at home. Being that happy makes you forget you have a chronic illness.”
Double H is in the process of rebuilding enrollment after the pandemic shut down camp in 2020. Prior to COVID-19, the camp served about 900 each summer and maintained a wait-list; in the 2023 season, 525 attended.
“It’s a great time for new families to join,” Wilcox said, adding that camp applications increased 25% this year over last. “I would say that anyone, no matter where they are, should definitely reach out to see if they qualify.”
Wilcox seeks to strengthen an organization whose sole source of revenue is donations to cover a greater cost per camper than at typical camps. Replenishing the donor and volunteer base will be crucial. Wilcox said she will partner with Double H’s board of directors, volunteers, staff, families and campers to ensure Double H is well-positioned for the future.
Among other things, Double H will enhance its outreach program, which brings camp activities to children in hospitals and community events to continue the mission year-round.
The outreach program was retooled during the pandemic when visitors were barred from hospitals. In response, Double H began partnering with advocacy groups to reach children elsewhere and at its Warren County grounds. In September, it hosted its second prom for camp alums.
Double H has begun a $5.5 million capital campaign to pay for a residential lodge for staff and volunteers, an outdoor amphitheater, an adaptive playground and an expanded outdoor pavilion. Each year, Double H raises $5 million for operations, which includes adaptive winter sports programs, instructing children in alpine skiing and snowboarding. Wilcox is in charge in all seasons.
A 15-year staffer, Royael said one common misconception is that the place is heart-breaking.
“Ninety-nine percent of my experience is the greatest joy,” she said. “But when it’s sad, which is the reality of the work, it’s really sad. It’s important to acknowledge that. We try to make sure we’re celebrating all the kids who have passed and their families.” An arboretum at Double H lists hundreds of names of campers and volunteers who have died.
“The kids that have passed, I’m so grateful that I was even a small part of their experience,” Royael said.
Wilcox said members of the Double H community have given her a great appreciation for the organization.
“Some campers said that this is the only place they’ve ever felt completely accepted in their life,” Wilcox said. “That’s amazing—you feel a responsibility to provide that for them.”
She thinks what it might have meant to her own family.
“My mother, if she could have seen my brothers Bob and Walter here, if she could have seen Bob up in the ropes course, if she could have seen him skiing, it would have meant the world to her.”
Photo at top: Alison Wilcox took over as CEO of Double H Ranch in Lake Luzerne. Photo by Cindy Schultz
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