Hangin’ with the truly beautiful people

I don’t want to give you the impression that I hang with the beautiful people all the time and my life is unbe lievably glamorous, but last Monday I was at a movie premiere and pretty much every single person there was unbelievably beautiful and the mingling was pretty darn glamorous. Let’s start with one of the film’s stars, Maryland’s Jeremy Vest, 25, who rocks his role in the movie and was willing to mix with the paparazzi before the screening and answer questions afterwards. I met 18-year-old Marina Shelton from Massachusetts, lumines cent in a lavender gown despite a cast on her left arm from recent surgery to lengthen the tendons there. And finally, there was a busload — and I mean literally a bus, a school bus, Addison County’s oft-sighted but never equaled blue and white “Incubus” — of my neighbors from Lincoln, Vermont with and without disabilities.

The film was “Burning Like a Fire: The Legacy of Ron Everett,” and the premiere was at the Big Picture Movie Theatre in Waitsfield. The producers, cast and crew were the remarkable extended family of friends from the summer camp at Lincoln’s Zeno Mountain Farm, roughly 70 people, half of them campers with disabilities and half of them counselors who do not have disabilities (or, at least, whose disabilities tend to be the more common afflictions such as patience, calmness, and a willingness to hoist wheelchairs on and off hay wagons). Vest has Williams syndrome; Shelton had a traumatic brain injury.

“The campers have things like cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, cognitive delays and autism,” Peter Halby, one of the founders of Zeno Mountain Farm, said. He and his brother, Will, and their wives, Ila and Vanessa respectively, are the visionaries behind what has to be one of the most poignant and powerful and actually workable utopias I’ve ever glimpsed.

“The mission of the camp is to promote friendships between people with and without disabilities,” Peter said. To that end, no one is paid or pays to take part in the camp, and the families of the campers are discouraged from making donations.

This is the third July that the camp has been energizing Lincoln and Bristol. (This year, they took top honors for best float in Bristol’s extravagant Fourth of July parade, for their recreation of the Peter Pan story with Captain Hook aboard the most elaborate paper mache frigate ever pasted together.) The Halbys hail from Concord, Mass., and while growing up, had volunteered during the summers at camps for people with disabilities. They both graduated from the University of Vermont and the two of them and their wives never lost the desire to build bridges between people with and without disabilities.

Consequently, in 2008 they bought land in Lincoln, built some wheelchair-accessible tree houses for campers and counselors to live in, and the rest is history. Simple, right? No, it wasn’t. But the tree houses are astonishing. Think Bauhaus meets crystals.

Zeno Mountain Farm is a series of camps, including sports camps in Florida and California, an adventure camp in Guatemala, summer and winter camps in Lincoln and a film camp in Los Angeles.

And while the Halbys refer to Lincoln as the “mothership,” it is the film camp that feeds the meter. Every year they produce a movie and use it as a fundraising tool at premieres in Los Angeles, New York, Boston and Washington, D.C. Not unlike a populist political campaign, Zeno also thrives on lots of small donations from supporters. And, finally, in addition to the counselors, there is a boatload of volunteer love. This spring, Bristol’s Dave Livingston showed up in Lincoln with 10 tons of hot asphalt for the wheelchair paths. Local lawyer Andy Jackson spends some of his lunch hours cooking for the crew. And perhaps no one can demonstrate better how to turn fallen trees into tree-house rafters than Warren-based design-builder James “B’fer” Roth on a hayride in the woods.

This summer’s camp ends a week from today, and the campers and counselors are already starting to feel wistful. “When I go home,” Vest told the audience after the movie premiere Monday, “I’ll be sulking in my room with my iPad until I get to come back. Where else can I conduct a band?”

Or, yes, star in a movie.

Friday night, Zeno Mountain Farm will perform a play members wrote this month. It will be at Lincoln’s Burnham Hall at 7:30 p.m.

I know I’ll be there — it may be my last chance to hang with the truly beautiful people for a while.

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To learn more about Zeno Mountain Farm, visit www.zenomountainfarm.org . To make a tax-deductible contribution, make your check out to Zeno Mountain Farm and mail it to Zeno Mountain Farm, 950 Zeno Road, Lincoln, Vt. 05443.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on July 17, 2011. Chris’s next novel, The Night Strangers, arrives on October 4, 2011.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.

One thought on “Hangin’ with the truly beautiful people

  1. Nancy Simpson-Brice says:

    Chris, Love your books and while an independent bookseller, promoted them like crazy to customers and my bookclubs. Would really like to see you return the favor by giving people the option of choosing IndieCommerce (allowing readers to shop at independent bookstores), Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million (allowing readers to shop at chain stores) instead of automatically dumping them into Amazon the Behemoth! Spread the wealth around…..

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