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SNOWMASS, Colo. — Tucked away in the aspens of Old Snowmass, water rushes near the site of an old zip line, as the wind rustles the trees above a campfire. You can hear nature all around you, but the visitors share one exceptional bond: this is a camp for the deaf and hard of hearing.
The Aspen Camp for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing was started back in 1967 by a man with a deaf son who wanted to bring kids who are also deaf and hard of hearing together to have the same outdoor experiences as kids who don't have hearing challenges.
Christy Smith is a former camper.
"I remember the first time when I came, I didn’t understand sign language. I didn’t understand what was going on," Smith said.
Smith recalled the isolation she felt as a child, struggling to navigate in a hearing world.
"While I was a child, I really struggled with having to speak and articulate and I had to work really hard and couldn’t figure out where was my place to be. My place to be was here, this place where we are right now because I met other role models that were deaf. I saw sign language. I saw different types of communication. I understand my identity as a person, as a deaf person," Smith said.
Suddenly, she had a window into another world.
Camp is where Smith learned American Sign Language, gained confidence and at the age of 7, finally found the connections she so desperately wanted.
"We’re the same. We have the same things. It doesn’t matter if you have a cochlear implant, or if you wear hearing aids or if you speak or if you don’t speak, but to know that we’re all deaf. We are all experiencing the same struggles of swimming in the pool without hearing aids, or having to figure out how to communicate with somebody with a mask on," Smith said.
Now, all these years later, Smith has returned to the Roaring Fork Valley. This time, she's on a rescue mission.
"We have so many deaf and hard-of-hearing children out there and they need a place to go," Smith said.
Two years ago, Aspen Camp for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing temporarily closed. Plagued by financial problems, the buildings are old and need repairs and the pipes burst in the main lodge, flooding it.
"We had some pretty extensive water damage in here," said volunteer and board member Zeph Williams.
Williams is one of the volunteers trying to bring 50 years of history back to life.
"This is a memorial that was hanging on the wall. John Denver played a concert here to raise the money to have this building built, so it’s pretty cool to be able to repair the building that somebody like that put the time and effort into," Williams said.
The camp needs a lot of work before campers can return. Upgrades to the lodge and kitchen need to be finished, the showers and bathrooms need renovations and the camp needs money to buy and install a new visual fire alarm and sprinkler system.
There is no shortage of passion among the volunteers, but getting the work done will take the love of the entire community.
"The reason the hearing community should care is that anybody could become deaf, from birth to adult, and when that happens, you need a place to understand what’s going on," Smith said. "How do I understand, what’s happening to me? You might have a child tomorrow that’s born deaf. Where are the resources that you’re gonna need for your baby? You need to figure out how do you ask those hard questions. People don’t know those answers and they come here."
Smith's point was illustrated during a candid moment our cameras caught. The mother of a hard-of-hearing child was overcome with emotion as she described the heartache of navigating this new path and wanting to give her little girl all of life's joys.
"It’s isolating without a community," she said wiping away tears.
For her and so many other families, finding this camp and this community dedicated to saving it is a gift.
To donate to help the camp, click here and select "Help for Aspen camp" from the drop down menu, or click below.