Ohana Camp, Hulbert, and all of Aloha bids farewell to Deb & Andy Williams

Deb & Andy WilliamsAs we ring in 2012, Aloha bids farewell to two people who, as much as anyone over the past quarter-century, have embodied The Aloha Foundation’s spirit and traditions. Deb and Andy Williams, who ran Hulbert Outdoor Center for two decades and Ohana Family Camp for the past six years — are retiring. They’ve introduced hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people to the Aloha experience during their time here, and broadened that experience to include people of all ages.

On a still-warm day in December, they sat in the sunroom of their Norwich, Vermont home and reflected on their own Aloha experience. Not surprisingly, they talked a lot about their work at Ohana, the family camp they helped build over the past decade.

“One has very few opportunities in a career to start something from scratch,” said Andy.

In 2001, Posie Taylor, then Aloha’s Executive Director, was creating a long-range plan for the Foundation. Almost on a whim, Andy threw out the idea of adding a full-scale family camp to Aloha’s offerings. He and Deb were directing Hulbert’s family camp, which ran in two, one-week sessions a year. The family camps were fully subscribed at 100 people each session, and Deb and Andy wondered if there was a way to translate Aloha’s powerful experience for children into something equally powerful for families. Recalling the range and potential of the Aloha programs at that time, Deb said, “A piece was missing.”

What seemed like a casual comment became real just a year later when a hilltop camp on Lake Fairlee came up for sale. Seeing the opportunity, the Foundation laid out more money than it ever had in its history — and put Andy and Deb in charge of bringing the Ohana vision to life.

The couple drew on their personal experiences and, crucially, on what Aloha already had been doing so well for decades. They moved forward asking themselves several questions: How do you compress the Aloha experience, the bonding and closeness that develops over the course of a summer, into the one or two weeks that families could come together? What kinds of unifying programs do you create when your campers span several generations? Was there a family equivalent for the kinds of counseling and mentoring that are so meaningful for Aloha’s younger campers? How would Ohana keep from being an exercise in nostalgia? How could a camp with roots in the early twentieth century address the needs of families today?

Aloha took ownership of the acreage and the century-old, dilapidated set of hilltop buildings in 2004, and Andy and Deb threw themselves into rebuilding them into a camp — and not into just any camp. Understanding the intangible hold of traditional camp scale and architecture on Aloha campers, they guided the painstaking restoration of the main lodge, right down to the rustic details of the porch railings. Deb and Andy knew they’d be attracting people who hoped to recapture the magic of youthful camp experiences with their families, or who wanted a shot at experiencing something they’d missed. “We hoped that people who’d come here as children in the 1930s would see the new lodge and say it looked just as they remembered it,” Deb said. “And that’s exactly what happened.”

They drew on the Aloha experience in setting up a rhythm for the new camp’s structure. “Summer camp has a beginning, a middle, and an end,” said Andy, so — unlike a typical resort, where families come and go as they please — they set defined start and end dates for each Ohana session, and chose programs to fit along that arc.

They knew that a part of the Aloha magic came from exposing campers to something new: new knowledge, new experiences. And so they made sure that Ohana programs would include a sense of discovery and education, as well.

The new family camp opened in 2007, with Andy and Deb still unsure how the power of the shared experiences they’d seen among young Aloha campers would translate to mixed-age families.

A visit to Ohana in 2011 offers answers to some of the questions they started with. One afternoon last summer, Sandy Roche sat on a towel by the dock while several of her six grandsons played in and around the water. This was Roche’s third visit to Ohana. She’d first come to the hilltop camp as part of a Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel) group. “I wandered up to the family house where all these families were contra-dancing,” she said. “I thought, ‘I’d love to bring my family here.’”

Her family, though, like many other families, was spread across the country, juggling busy schedules. Two of Roche’s daughters lived in Montana; one lived in New York, as did Roche herself. Still, they found a week in the summer of 2010 when they could be together at Ohana — three generations, six cousins between the ages of three and twelve. At the end of the week, one of Roche’s sons-in-law told her it had been the best vacation he’d ever had. It was easy to decide to come back in 2011.

At Ohana they found a nice balance to each day, with organized activities for young and old in the mornings and the rest of the day free until dinner. No sit-down lunch interrupted the flow of the day. Instead, with the help of kitchen staff, Roche and her family made their own bag lunches after breakfast in the lodge’s huge kitchen, where all the produce, the maple syrup, and much other food besides came from local farms or the camp garden.

Roche and one of her grandsons carved wooden spoons under the guidance of local woodcarver Bill Shepard. Other groups weaved baskets: They were easy to spot because they sat together on the dock each day, keeping their basket strips moist in the water while they worked. The activities, carefully selected by Deb, taught skills that reached back to earlier eras and brought local artisans and guests together in community.

Roche and her family spent most afternoons down at the lake. She liked watching a group of children, her grandsons among them, building sand castles, digging in the sand, and playing in the water. “There’s nothing for children that’s more soothing or better for imaginative play,” she said approvingly. She had also noticed that, even with many children and adults down at the waterfront, “I never hear a cross word,” and there wasn’t a cell phone or laptop in sight. She thought it had something to do with the people who came to Ohana, but also something to with the way the camp was run.

“The organization of the camp lends itself to cooperation and mutual respect,” she said. She gave “What is it?” as an example. Every evening before dinner, she explained, Ohana campers and staff gathered on the broad front steps of the lodge. “Deb Williams brings out some object from nature — a feather, an insect, a rock — and the children are asked to come back the next day with an idea about what it is, and what’s interesting about it.” It was while Deb and Andy were running Wildwood Nature Camp for Massachusetts Audubon Society that Deb developed her approach to teaching natural history to a wide range of ages. The “What is it?” table on the lodge porch was full of nature books, from simple picture books to detailed guides, to help answer each day’s question. Deb answered the previous day’s question with simple statements that even very young children could follow, yet tucked in information that might be new even to seasoned naturalists. Afterward, Andy often read a poem or part of an essay. “They take seriously,” Roche said, “the fact that we are all here together.”

The balance that Deb and Andy sought appeared to be working. In 2011, nearly one-third of Ohana’s business came from family reunions. Camp enrollment overall is running ahead of plan, and its financial picture is equally rosy. In the sunny room in Norwich, Andy asked, “Were there times when it could have teetered and gone the other way? Absolutely. But Deb and I felt strongly that if we created a really good, high-quality program, it would stay.”

They’ve seen that people hunger for time together and time in the natural world, that they hunger for authenticity and role models, and for connections to a wider community. Ohana helps create these experiences. For some, Ohana gives them an experience of summer camp they never had as children. For others, Ohana gives them a chance to return to the well, to be refreshed by memories and add new ones.

“It felt like the right time to move on,” Andy said. “We gave it 150%, gave it our all, for six years. We’re very satisfied with our work.”

As he talks, snowshoes hang next to the door behind him; pack baskets sit on top of a bookcase; paintings of northern landscapes hang on the wall. Laughing, Deb said that the rest of the house was still filled with boxes. “Two entire careers of stuff to move back into our house,” Andy said.

“I’ve been running trips since I was 16,” he said. “We’ve been in the overnight programming business since our twenties. We started when our oldest child was one year old. Now our children are all grown up.”

“We can go canoeing now,” Deb said! — though Andy explained that while they’d love to spend much of next summer paddling, perhaps in Quebec’s far north, a landscape they both love, “the complication is that our entire network is people who run summer programs.

“We’ve felt so lucky to have had the opportunity to work in such a historic place,” he said. “We wanted to stay until it felt stable. We’re leaving at a good point.”

To Andy and Deb, we’d say this: We’ve been lucky to have you. May the wind be at your backs.

Author Kristen Laine, writes and blogs about environmental education, women’s issues and children in the outdoors.  After her graduation from Harvard, Kristen went west, and in between outdoor expeditions in the Seattle area, became “Outside Magazine Online’s” first editor.  Now on the east coast, Kristen lives with her husband and two children in Orange, New Hampshire, and when she’s not writing, can often be found rowing on the Connecticut River.