The campers have survived cataclysmic car crashes. Bike accidents. They’ve been thrown from their horses. Their lives have been changed in a heartbeat by a stroke. The shorthand for what they have experienced is TBI: traumatic brain injury.
And this coming week, 20 TBI survivors from around the country will be arriving at Zeno Mountain Farm in Lincoln, Vermont for a weeklong camp. It’s a joint effort between Zeno, which offers camps in three states and Guatemala for teenagers and adults of all ages with developmental disabilities, and “Love Your Brain,” an organization that Kevin Pearce and his brother Adam started after Kevin suffered a near fatal snowboarding accident and brain injury in 2009 while preparing for the Vancouver Olympics. Kevin and Adam will be helping to direct the camp.
Peter Halby, 38, founded Zeno along with his wife, Ila, his brother, Will, and his sister-in-law, Vanessa. He said the partnership with “Love Your Brain” was a natural. “There’s the Vermont connection,” Peter said. “But there’s also the idea that we’re interested in building community.”
As is the case with all Zeno camps, none of the campers will pay to be a part, and none of the counselors will accept any salary. They’re all volunteers. The Halbys, in fact, steer clear of the terms “counselor” and “camper,” stressing that they are a community of friends with different levels of ability. Some of the volunteers have worked at other Zeno camps and some will be working with Zeno for the first time. But Peter isn’t concerned:
“The people who work with us are good. It doesn’t merit a degree. It merits compassion and understanding and empathy.”
The camp will have a chef preparing special brain healthy meals. One night that means a choice of a lemon dill salmon or a mushroom and spinach risotto. For lunch there’s teriyaki tofu or a chickpea and feta salad. The camp will be rich in what Halby calls brain games, hiking, meditation, seminars on holistic healing, and (arguably the most important part) “the building of a support network. The thing about TBI is that it can be such a hidden disability.”
Moreover, unlike developmental disabilities such as Down syndrome or cognitive delays, someone who has experienced a traumatic brain injury may have a sense of loss at their limitations. It’s this reality that makes a support network so meaningful.
Among the highlights of the camp will be a screening of “The Crash Reel” at Zeno’s 200-seat Ronnie Simonsen Theater on Friday night, May 23. The documentary, directed by two-time Oscar nominee Lucy Walker, chronicles Kevin Pearce’s snowboarding accident, his brain injury, and his inspiring recovery. (The screening is open to the public.)
Consequently, the camp will be far more about possibility than wistfulness. To that end, the camp will have 16 teams running in the KeyBank Vermont City Marathon on Sunday, May 25 – and each team with at least five runners will have one or more of the campers who have experienced a TBI. The goal of the teams, of course, is simply to finish; completing a marathon is a mighty accomplishment. But they are also hoping to raise $50,000 through pledges.
“I love what I do,” Peter told me. “When people know what Zeno is all about, they really want to help.”
It’s always a marathon to come back from a TBI. Next Sunday, the Halbys, the Pearces, and company will bring that metaphor to life.
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If you want to attend the free screening of “The Crash Reel” in Lincoln, email Peter Halby at to reserve a seat. Showtime is 8 p.m. on Friday, May 23.
If you want to pledge to support any of the Zeno runners in the KeyBank Vermont City Marathon, visit www.stayclassy.org and search “Brainfarmers.”
(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on May 18, 2014. Chris’s new novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” arrives on July 8.)