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The Husky Connection to The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp

Heather Buck volunteers at Hole in the Wall Gang Camp.

Nov. 9, 2012

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By Jeffrey Piascik

University of Connecticut redshirt senior Heather Buck is no stranger to being in the spotlight, as she enters her final year of eligibility for one of the nation’s most prestigious women’s basketball programs. Coming off another successful season, which ultimately ended in an 83-75 Final Four loss to Notre Dame, Buck and her teammates entered the offseason to prepare to make another national title run in 2012-2013. But despite her rigorous basketball training, it was what Buck did off the court this past summer that truly defines her as a person.

Throughout the summer, Buck volunteered her time at The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp. Based out of Ashford, CT, the Camp is dedicated to providing “a different kind of healing” to seriously ill children and their families throughout the Northeast.

Founded in 1988 by Paul Newman, the Camp provides a unique healing experience for children with serious medical conditions by creating a community atmosphere that celebrates the fun, friendship and spirit of childhood, where every kid can “raise a little hell”.

The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp offers many kids, who otherwise would not have the opportunity, the chance to experience the transformational spirit and friendships that go hand in hand with camp. Through summer sessions and family weekend programs at Camp, and year-round outreach to hospitals and clinics throughout the Northeast, the Camp serves more than 20,000 children and family members annually. The upcoming year will mark the 25th anniversary for the program that has brought happiness and life-changing adventures to thousands of children, free of charge.

“Camp is supposed to be a place where the kids can get away from whatever is going on in their life,” said Buck.  “The kids get to get away from their problems and relax and do things that they couldn’t do out of camp.”

The opportunities the program offers are almost limitless; kids can choose to engage in a variety of activities that range from engaging in horseback riding to putting on a skit in front of their peers. Creativity and camaraderie are encouraged by staff to inspire their campers to believe that “the impossible can be possible.”

“The thing that I really love about going up there is getting to see kids do things that we see as everyday activities,” Buck said.  “To see how much joy and happiness these activities bring to them is what makes this so exciting and worthwhile. Seeing them smile with pride after accomplishing a task is one of the most rewarding things about volunteering.”

Although Buck often has a chaotic schedule, which includes balancing basketball and school work, she believes it is important to find the time to give back to her community.

“I just think volunteering our time to a cause like this is important as people, not even as an athlete,” expressed Buck. “It goes along with being a good person and good citizen. I wanted to be part of a good thing and I think that anyone that has the opportunity and ability to give their time should do just that.”

In addition to Buck, the UConn women’s basketball team holds strong ties to The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp. Two student managers, Aaron Baral and Kelly Foy, attended the Camp after being diagnosed with life threatening medical conditions.

Baral, who enters his third season as student manager, attended the camp in summers of 2006 and 2007 after being diagnosed with leukemia in 2005. The senior accentuated the importance of embracing the program and taking part in activities with his peers, something which he found vital to his experience as a camper.

“I went to camp when I was really sick, I didn’t have any hair, and I was going through chemotherapy. It was a really tough time for me,” Baral said. “Going to camp, you’re there with everybody else who is going through the same type of things you’re going through. We were all sort of in the same boat. When you were at the camp you could be yourself – it really let me be a kid again.”

Because of the special nature of this program, many of the volunteers often return to camp repeatedly after their initial visit to continue to help in any way they can. During the summers of 2008 and 2009, Baral returned to Ashford as a Leader in Training, and worked on staff during 2010 and 2011. Being a former camper, Baral knows exactly what many of the kids are going through.

“When I was a camper I was very timid, but having the support around me to know if I ever wanted to do anything, that I could, was crucial. I often see myself in a lot of the campers,” said Baral.  “I can see that shy kid that I was back when I attended. The most rewarding thing is when that camper steps out of their comfort zone and goes all-in on an activity. To see that smile on their face is just heartwarming”

Both Baral and Buck acknowledged that sharing the experience of volunteering at The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp is something that has brought them closer together. In fact, during the past summer both UConn students volunteered during the same week, helping the siblings of those with serious medical conditions.

“There’s a different relationship for sure. I think both being at the camp and helping out a lot of the same kids, we have developed a different kind of friendship – we’re not just manager and player anymore,” expressed Buck. “We have become much closer friends.”

“I got to see Heather interact with all the kids, so I’ve seen her in the basketball context and now I’ve seen her in the camp context,” Baral said. “She seemed to fit in perfectly.”

With the 2012-2013 women’s basketball season set to kick off on November 9 at Gampel Pavilion, both Baral and Buck figure to be busy preparing for the start of their final season in Storrs. But regardless of how the season ends for the Huskies on the court, the bond created between these two UConn seniors off the court is something that neither will soon forget.