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SeriousFun For Kids

Thanks to Paul Newman's legacy, kids with serious illnesses get to experience the joy of summer camp.

For many of us— and our children— the experience of going to summer camp is a foundational memory of growing up. Summer camp can be a life-changing opportunity, something legendary Westporter Paul Newman recognized when he attended camp in his youth. And it’s why he founded SeriousFun Children’s Network, a summer camp experience for children with serious illnesses where they could let go and just be kids. Paul opened the first SeriousFun camp, The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Ashford, CT, in 1988. Today there are more than 30 SeriousFun camps and programs around the world.

“Paul Newman had a true appreciation for what his experiences at summer camp offered him,” explains Blake Maher, the chief executive officer for SeriousFun Children’s Network. “A sense of independence, an opportunity to try new things, a way to build new relationships— and these are all part of the residential camp experience that SeriousFun provides to campers,” says Blake, who started his own journey with the organization as a camp counselor. What’s unique about a SeriousFun camp is the inclusivity, says Blake: “The level of intentionality, expertise, accessibility, and high-quality care makes it possible for our campers – living with serious and complex medical conditions – to have this positive childhood experience.” For example, SeriousFun camps have features like zip lines that can accommodate wheelchairs. Many of the SeriousFun camp sessions are condition-specific to help further this goal, too. “The reason why this approach is important is that for some conditions, the medical care, the facility and site adaptations, the meal plans and special diets, schedule and activity adjustments, and other important considerations are specific to the needs related to their condition,” explains Blake.  “In addition to that, there is a special type of sharing and connection—and sense of belonging—that happens for kids who sometimes don’t get to interact with other kids who have the same condition, and that can be incredibly liberating for these kids who don’t always feel this sense of comfort and inclusion.”

SeriousFun camps also offer experiences for siblings and families of seriously ill children.  “Sibling and family sessions are so special and important to the families we serve,” says Blake. “When a family has a child with a serious medical condition, that experience impacts all members of the family in different ways. Offering siblings of campers with medical conditions the SeriousFun camp experience doesn’t just mean they get to have summer camp, it means they also get to attend with other kids who know what it means to have a brother or sister who has a medical condition, as well as being able to go home and talk with their sibling about an experience they both are a part of—like both being able to talk about a newfound love of archery after their respective sessions or what it was like to perform at stage night.” The holistic approach speaks to the profound effect SeriousFun camps set out to have—and achieve— on the families they serve. “I can’t say enough about these programs and the powerful impact they have on families. It’s beyond anything you can imagine.”

While SeriousFun started here in Connecticut, the third camp Paul founded was in Ireland—international exposure was always on his mind, even though, as Blake points out, “summer camp is a very American concept.” Still, the vision was prescient—there are now SeriousFun camps in Uganda, Hungary, Italy, Ethiopia, and many more locations worldwide. 

Throughout his career with SeriousFun Children’s Network, Blake says he’s been blown away by the transformative power of the camps. “I never forget the expressions of disbelief from parents when they have come to pick up their child from camp to find a formerly withdrawn, quiet, unconfident child brimming with energy, excitement, conversation, and optimism,” he says. "Over the years I’ve had the chance to talk—and even work with—many former campers. And they all say, 'Camp changed my life. Who I am today is because of camp.' It makes your heart swell to know that what we all do together makes this kind of long-lasting impact on these kids.”

To support SeriousFun Children’s Network both here in CT and globally, visit seriousfun.org 

"Paul Newman had a true appreciation for what summer camp offered him."

"Camp can be incredibly liberating for these kids."

  • Family weekend at a Sickle Cell camp program.
  • SeriousFun CEO Blake Maher with a camper.
  • An accessible zip line.