After a chance introduction by a mutual friend more than two decades ago, Alec Baldwin dedicated much of his rare free time to helping Paul Newman fulfill his dream of making the lives of some children just a little brighter.
Newman founded a summer camp for seriously ill kids that he named the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp after the gang in his film "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." He believed that children facing grave illnesses and very grown-up realities should have a special hideout where they could just be kids for a while.
Newman died in 2008, but the camp -- now in its 25th year -- carries on his mission and legacy with a bit of help from some of his famous friends, like Baldwin.
When Newman was alive, he and Baldwin and several of the acting legend's other famous friends would gather at the camp to entertain.
"We would come up here and do really horrible shows, variety shows. Newman and his friends would write the most awful comedy sketches you've ever heard in your life, and we'd come up here, and we'd just do them without any shame. And people loved it," Baldwin said.
Now, Baldwin feels that his role is more of helping fill the void left by Newman when it comes to ensuring that the camp thrives for the children who so badly need this escape, now and for years to come.
"I think the thing that's robbed from these kids is a childhood, which is maybe not, you know, worry-free, but less worry. Childhood is when you should have less of the tough things in life and the difficult things in life, and these kids have an excess of the difficult things in life, the tough things in life. And when they come to the camp, they have a childhood on so many levels," Baldwin said.
At any one time, the camp can take 120 children -- free of charge -- with illnesses such as cancer, blood diseases and disorders and metabolic diseases.
"The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp is a sanctuary for seriously ill children where they can forget about their illness and get back in touch with what it means to be a child," camp CEO Jimmy Canton said.
"The children that come to the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp do anything a child would do at a typical camp. It's just that we modify all of our activities to make sure that they are totally included and every activity is accessible to their needs. So there's fishing, boating, theater, arts and crafts, wood shop, horses, clowning, sports and rec, camping out. You name it; we do it.
"What the children, I think, get out of camp the most is that is a sense of community and a sense of acceptance, and in their regular lives they feel totally isolated, and they so often are living on the margins. But at camp, they're surrounded by 120 other children that have walked in their shoes, down similar paths. And they look around and that affirmation, that understanding, that sense of safety is. Is so much greater than I think anyone could ever expect when they walk into the hole in the wall gang camp."
And according to 11-year-old Cameron Merritt, that's exactly what happens when he comes to camp each summer.
"I know I'm at a camp that's really fun and that I can have a good time at. I don't think about the hospital, and I don't think about cancer. Even though there may be kids there who are sick, I still don't think about it."
A big part of the camp's success is its ability to handle the children's needs medically. It has an infirmary staffed with 15 nurses and three or four full-time physicians at all times, as well as a full team of very passionate staff.
"One of the things about the camp I love is that, yes, there are celebrity friends of Newman's, over the many years they've done this, have come up here, but the people who really, really make the difference are the staff. And it's just the most beautiful group of people. Hole in the Wall is different, because Newman was different, and people loved him, and they love his wife, and he pulled people in who were like him, who were drawn to him like a magnet, you know, to give and to stay dedicated," Baldwin said.
The camp has served children for 25 years due in great part to the donations it receives, big and small. Through the years, it has attracted a few sponsors to host big fundraising events like the Travelers Championship because the magic of the camp is contagious, as tournament director Nathan Grube explains.
"The first time I went out to camp, I didn't know what to expect, and actually I was very busy at the time, and I was on my phone, and one of the children started speaking about their experience at camp, and I hung up my phone, and I settled in, and I started listening, and I just started crying. This child was sharing how impactful camp was to him. And then the parents were sitting there too, saying 'it meant so much to us to see our child be so affected by this.' I was completely hooked. And our whole team with Travelers tournament, we feel so fortunate to be able to give them the money because of what they do and what it means to kids and what it means to the parents to see the transformation in those kids."
But Baldwin is aware that even with big donors, it will take long-term support to serve 120 children at a time for nine sessions each summer, as well as continue outreach programs at hospitals and maintain the other camps across the country -- eight in all -- that now fall under the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp umbrella. He feels the weight of carrying on what Newman began and feels it's his mission to carry the torch.
"I really get choked up when I've thought about what Newman's done. It's so singular, and if people send five bucks or 10 bucks and sign on and support the work that's being done here, it's probably the greatest cause I've seen in my life."