Every summer adults living with developmental disabilities and their able-bodied friends spend a month on Zeno Mountain in Lincoln, Vermont, living in wheelchair-accessible tree houses and caring for one-another.
Brothers Will and Peter Halby, along with their wives Vanessa and Ila, started the Zeno Mountain Farm summer camp. The brothers grew up in Massachusetts and attended the University of Vermont.
They loved Vermont so much they bought 273 acres in Lincoln where they spend much of the year directing Zeno Mountain Farm. It's not a working farm but a series of camps, timed throughout the year, that serve different groups of campers with disabilities. In July, it's folks with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, autism, traumatic brain injuries and spinal cord injuries.
“No one gets paid or pays,” Will Halby says of the camp experience. “Everyone contributes. We cook for ourselves, we clean up after ourselves. Everyone's responsible for the care of each other and this place. And everyone's invited back year after year for the rest of their lives.”
No one pays to come to Zeno because the $1,000 a day it takes to run the camp in the summer is covered by donations from thousands of supporters, and the people who help care for the campers are all volunteers.
“We all have a passion for this camp because of the way it's structured,” says Akira Gilbert, a 21 year-old college graduate who has been coming to Zeno Mountain since her freshman year.
Zeno's structure stems from its founders' adamant belief that there are not campers and counselors here, just friends with varying abilities who care for one another.
“I was extremely cautious my first year,” Gilbert recalls, “and then I realized that everyone is figuring things out as they go and the best thing was to ask my friends with disabilities that I was working with because they know better than anyone” what they needed.
“I’m 39 years old and I've been coming to this camp for ages and I know everybody's name,” says Steve Kurtasz.
Kurtasz, who has cerebral palsy and walks with crutches, comes to the camp from his home in Boston.
“I come back every year,” he says, “It's very fun to be in the cabin with all of my good friends. It's nice to live in the woods. I love it here.”
Some campers bunk in one of two wheelchair-accessible tree houses. One has a back porch 18 feet off the ground with sweeping views of Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks. The tree houses were made by a Warren builder named B'fer Roth who teaches at the Yestermorrow School in Waitsfield.
At the close of camp, performers in wheelchairs, crutches and walkers take to the stage along with able-bodied campers to put on a musical. A.J. Murray, a camper with cerebral palsy, sang a solo from his chair.
Every Fourth of July campers march in a local parade. This year, residents of Bristol were disappointed to learn that the campers decided to march in the neighboring Warren parade, where they dressed up as Sen. Bernie Sanders. Zeno Mountain Farm won best float of the parade and got to meet Sanders.
Thanks to the Halby's ties to the film industry in Los Angeles, Zeno Mountain campers also help make feature films produced by professionals.
This year, 31-year-old Ben Moncaba played a bus driver at a fictional Vermont dance camp. Moncaba has Williams Syndrome, which involves medical problems but is often accompanied by an affinity for music. So Moncaba was thrilled to join other campers at a New York recording studio where they were coached and accompanied by Broadway professionals.
“I’m so glad I came back this year 'cause it's lots of fun and we get to do a lot of fun things,” Moncaba says. “It's like a home away from home. That's how I see it. This is a place I'll never forget.”
In the fall, Zeno Mountain Farm will offer a retreat to young adults living with cancer. Veterans grappling with PTSD will come to Zeno in December. And in May the camp will host people recovering from traumatic brain injuries.
Correction 5:40 p.m. July 25, 2017 The story was changed to correct the name of camper Steve Kurtasz and the location of the Fourth of July parade.