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A Place in Her Heart
Scripps Events Director Old Hand at Newmanís Camp for Sick Kids

By Ioana Patrigenaru | October 30, 2006

Jill Hammons is on the phone with New York from her office at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UCSD. She sounds a little worried and maternal at the same time.

“Are you not feeling good, honey,” she asks. Then a pause.
“You feel dizzy. Are you eating?”
“Did you go to the neurologist to have that checked? Why? You should, sweetie pie. Ok?”

Jill Hammons with Aisha Braimah. The two met at The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp 12 years ago.

Hammons is talking to Aisha Braimah. The 20-year-old is the hospital, dealing with yet another complication from sickle cell anemia. Patients with this inherited disease don’t have enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout their body. They can suffer strokes, blindness and organ damage.

Hammons and Braimah met 12 years ago at The Hole in Wall Gang Camp in Connecticut, which was founded by Paul Newman with profits from his food company, Newman’s Own, Inc. The special events director for the Scripps Institution of Oceanography has been going back to camp ever since. She missed just one year, in 2003, during Scripps’ centennial celebrations. She attends eight-day sessions for children who have sickle cell anemia.

“You hope they live long enough, you hope you see them the next year,” Hammons said. “Camp gives these kids a reason to go on.” 

The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp serves children ages 7 to 15 who are battling cancer, HIV/AIDS, hemophilia and sickle cell anemia. All services for campers are free. 

“We can’t run our camp without volunteers,” said Sarah Eio. The camp’s director of volunteers met Hammons when they were both donating their time to the organization.
“She doesn’t see our kids as sick children, but as children who need lots a love and games to play,” Eio said of Hammons.

The Western-themed camp has been designed to provide a playful environment for children. Facilities include an Olympic-size swimming pool, log cabins circling a wide green, a theater, an infirmary, craft-making areas disguised as Western-style shops, a round dining hall modeled on a Shaker barn, as well as a recreation center.

Braimah at camp when she was a little girl.

Hammons always brings gifts for all children on behalf of Scripps, said Karen Allen, the camp’s director of community and family outreach. “I think Jill is absolutely wonderful,” Allen said. “I love her enthusiasm.”

Campers can take part in a wide range of activities, from arts and crafts, to archery, to scuba diving and horse riding. Children can play dress-up and chose from hundreds of donated costumes. The camp also puts on special events. Last year, children woke up from their naps to the sight of tethered hot air balloons, ready for a ride. “It’s all about acclaim and feeling good and making them feel special,” Hammons said.

She decided to volunteer after her sister-in-law died of cancer. She picked The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp after watching a story on KPBS.

“After 19 boxes of Kleenex, I thought I wanted to get involved,” she said. 

She called the number at the end of the credits. One essay, four phone interviews and a background check later, she finally became a volunteer. She met Braimah that first summer. A picture of the little girl, with braids and dimples, is pinned on Hammons’ office wall.

The two kept in touch, exchanging letters and phone calls. Braimah lost her mother.
So Hammons got to know her father and brother. The 20-year-old has had two strokes and two hip replacements. Last year, she found out she had two aneurisms. But she hesitated to have them removed, saying she was tired of being in the hospital all the time.  Hammons made a deal with her. After the operation, Braimah would get to fly to California to see Hammons. She lives in the Bronx and is studying film at a community college in upstate New York. Finally, the young woman underwent surgery. She and Hammons plan to reunite at Thanksgiving.

Braimah’s background is not unusual. Many of the campers come from the inner city and are raised by single parents. “They’re never allowed to be children,” Hammons said.

At camp, they get the opportunity to relax and have fun. They also get to meet celebrities.  Julia Roberts volunteered one year. Hammons was in charge of a group of older girls at the time. She rehearsed what they would do if they bumped into the actress: be nice, say you’re glad to see her and leave. Then two of the girls ran into Roberts in the restroom. They were so impressed that they couldn’t speak.

After 11 years as a camp volunteer, Hammons finally caught a glimpse this summer of camp founder Paul Newman in the dining hall. His wife, Joanne Woodward, is sitting in front of him.

Meanwhile, Hammons had been trying for years to get a glimpse of Newman. She finally succeeded this year. First, a man on a bike, wearing yellow shorts, white tennis shoes and a shirt, and holding something in his mouth, rode by Hammons and a group of campers she was taking to the pool. She greeted him with a cheerful “hi, how are you doing?” He mumbled a greeting back, waving. A little later, the man showed up in the camp’s dining hall. “I suddenly realized, HELL'S BELLS, it was Newman!!!!” Hammons wrote in an e-mail.

She went right up to him to shake his hand, excitedly saying "Mr. Newman, thanks a ton
for this amazing camp!  For 11 years I have come back again and again because of the incredible magic that is here."  He grinned, made a fist and pumped it high in the air, saying loudly: "Yeahh!” Then he introduced his wife, Joanne Woodward, and both chatted with Hammons. Before they parted, Newman thanked her for volunteering. 

Later, Hammons lined up for lunch, loudly complaining about the Connecticut summer heat, when a voice said, "Honey, I am from Georgia and this is nothing." "Well, honey I am from California, and believe me, this is friggin' hot!"  Hammons fired right back. Then she turned around and there was Joanne Woodward again. The two helped themselves, then parted ways as Hammons headed back to her table. She caught a last glimpse of Newman kissing Woodward, who was leaving the dining hall.

“It’s amazing what Mr. Newman has done,” said Hammons, now back in her office in La Jolla.

Related links:
The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp

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