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Philips Kauti, second from left, uses sign language with Brayden Neil, far right, while renovating the deck floor of the amphitheater at Aspen Camp of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing on Tuesday, May 3, in Old Snowmass. Deaf schools from New Mexico, Utah and Colorado sent student volunteers to the deaf camp last week to assist with projects in preparation for summer activities. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

OLD SNOWMASS — With towering Aspen trees that catch every breeze from the Elk Mountains and water that cascades over giant rocks along Snowmass Creek, Aspen Camp of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing is a calming refuge tucked away from the bustle of nearby resort towns.

Yet for all the serenity it offers campers, it has endured rounds of calamities that have placed it on the verge of collapse. 

On top of trying to survive through a pandemic, the nonprofit racked up tens of thousands of dollars of debt, was at the center of an Internal Revenue Service inspection after neglecting to pay payroll taxes, suffered leadership and staff turnover, was sued by a former executive director and faced major building repairs after a water pipe leaked and flooded the main lodge.

“There was literally no reason for camp to continue,” said board president Eric Kaika, who steered the nonprofit’s recovery the past three years alongside two other board members.

Today, Aspen Camp has resurfaced with a new board and a new sense of stability, rounding the corner from years of turmoil and uncertainty. The nonprofit is also taking on a new look, with the help of deaf and hard-of-hearing students who do not want to see the only camp of its kind in the world disappear.

Last week, a group of deaf and hard-of-hearing high school students from schools in Colorado, Utah and New Mexico traveled to the camp to spruce up its aging structures. They painted the exterior of the main lodge, revamped the outdoor theater and hung a new sign at the camp entrance — learning leadership and hands-on skills along the way. The students belong to a jobs skills pilot program created in partnership with the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind, the New Mexico School for the Deaf and Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind. The program fills a critical niche at a time when many people who are deaf or hard of hearing struggle to find jobs that provide a living wage. 

Jesse Woosley, a transition coordinator at the New Mexico School for the Deaf, interacts with volunteers on the 17-acre campus last week. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
New Mexico School for the Deaf staff member Monique Johnson, left, and student Efrim Rodarte-Estrada paint the exterior of the main lodge. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

The work also offers a window into the future Aspen Camp is chasing — in which its 17-acre campus can extend its reach to benefit more people. The organization, which was formed in 1967, has remained the only year-round camp in the world offering winter and summer programs for people who are deaf and hard of hearing, from kids to older adults, as far as Kaika knows. Board members envision all kinds of opportunities that would enliven the campus once again now that it has found more solid footing.

Kaika, who is deaf and who first became involved with Aspen Camp in 2008, sees potential in creating an alternative school at the camp that would give kids options beyond attending a deaf school or a mainstream school. 

The alternative school, he said, would prioritize education in outdoor recreation in a part of the country where it has become a booming industry. Kaika wants to take that concept a step further, collaborating with deaf and hard-of-hearing educators and community leaders to introduce a curriculum to Aspen Camp “giving kids a self-guided option to excel” in the outdoor recreation industry. The camp would host deaf professionals from across the country so that they could learn the curriculum and replicate outdoor programming in their own communities.

The pilot program that unfolded at the camp last week was one small step toward putting momentum behind a full-fledged alternative school.

The organization will gauge whether the program was successful, Kaika said, noting that if it’s able to pinpoint ways the program enhanced kids’ education or job experience, then he and others will know their vision “is good as gold and we need to build onto it.”

Throughout the week, students scurried across campgrounds tackling different renovation and restoration projects, setting down their smartphones to work with paint and power tools. They replaced amphitheater benches and the stage platform — an important part of camp where people communicate and tell stories — to make it safer and more accessible. They also built a concrete foundation for a propane tank and dug a trench for a pipe to be buried.

For some students, the construction and carpentry skills they polished at Aspen Camp tie into what they’ve already learned back home. The New Mexico School for the Deaf has an aquaponics program in which students build storage sheds with help from the school’s trades teacher and maintenance workers. Through the pilot program, they were able to pick up lessons from professional craftsmen — how to use tools and read measurements, for instance, which students can learn more effectively in a work environment than in a classroom, said Jesse Woosley, a transition coordinator at the New Mexico School for the Deaf.

Woosley brought six students and three staff members with him to Aspen Camp, including Sophia Martinez, 17, who will graduate this month and plans to attend Gallaudet University, a higher education institution for students who are deaf or hard of hearing located in Washington, D.C.

“I wanted to experience what it was like to do outdoor work,” Sophia, who is hard of hearing, said through two translators. “I love working outside. I wanted more experience, especially with woodworking.”

Sophia, who gained woodworking experience by helping build benches while at Aspen Camp on Tuesday, also wanted to branch out and meet new people.

“Honestly, I’m always working with hearing people,” she said. “So it’s nice to have deaf people.”

That’s part of what makes Aspen Camp a place worth saving despite its slew of challenges with leadership and funding. Many kids enrolled in schools where they’re surrounded by peers who can hear or who grow up in places without a strong deaf community come to camp, and “it’s the first time they’ve found their tribe,” said board treasurer Karen Immerso.

Woosley, who worked as a backpack coordinator at Aspen Camp in the early 2000s, has seen students who are the sole deaf person in their class back home come to camp and realize they’re no longer alone. He’s also watched students develop confidence and grow bolder while immersed in nature and “outside of their home and outside of their comfort zones.”

“A lot of magic happens here,” he said through a translator. “Without being forced, it just happens.”

Utah School for the Deaf students Eh Ta Kpaw Say, at left, and Kelvin Budge, take a break in front of the dorms following a day of volunteering. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
Angel Lopez, from left, Jose Ruiz and Angel Ramos chat inside the dorms. The deaf volunteers are part of the Bridge to Life transitional work program with the Colorado School for the Deaf to earn work experience and learn new skills. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

The teacher, who returned to Aspen Camp last summer for family programming, said the challenge is to make sure the camp keeps fulfilling its promise.

“It depends on what we, the community, can make of it,” he said. “I think the opportunities are there. We just need to grab it. We need to pull people in. We need to bring students here.”

A three-year road to transformation

Another five students from Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind traveled to Old Snowmass last week with transition specialist Kevin Berrigan, who called Aspen Camp a critical place for deaf and hard-of-hearing students to access outdoor education and language.

“A deaf camp is a place for kids to grow and in the future they’ll come back, give back to the community, and it’s cyclical and we will continue to grow,” Berrigan, who is also deaf, said through a translator.

While preparing the new entryway sign, painting and helping replace outdoor benches, Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind student Meagan Feik, 17, realized it was her first time at a camp created specifically for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

“I feel like they’re all like me, and we all understand one another and communication is easy,” Meagan said through two translators.

That ease of signing with one another is a big part of why Meagan, who will graduate next year, hopes Aspen Camp has a more promising future. There, she’s able to better express herself and connect with others in the way she’s most comfortable while the communication struggles she often faces with the outside world are stripped away.

“Hearing people are more dependent on their ears, and they don’t really have that connection looking at one another,” she said, adding, “we value the ability to be able to have that eye contact and connection with one another.”

New Mexico School for the Deaf student Sophia Martinez, second from right, and the volunteers socialize while renovating the aging structures on campus with help from Kevin Berrigan, Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind transition specialist, far left, in Old Snowmass. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Immerso, the nonprofit’s board treasurer, imagines building on the pilot program, possibly extending it to a semester-long program in which a handful of young people could live at the camp while working in Aspen for four days a week in exchange for room and board and helping maintain campgrounds.

It’s the kind of bold plan that loomed far out of reach for Aspen Camp just three years ago, when three board members — who have since grown the board to seven members — swooped in to save the nonprofit from folding.

Amid ongoing struggles with camp finances, staffing and buildings, Aspen Camp closed its doors for a year in late 2018, according to reporting by Snowmass Sun. Camp cabins were ransacked and vandalized by Airbnb renters in January that year, prompting the property to no longer allow renters, a key source of revenue. 

The nonprofit was also hit with a federal tax lien in 2018, owing more than $145,000 it neglected to pay in payroll taxes from September 2014 through 2016.

Aspen Camp faced another $45,000 in debt. The combination of two failed fundraisers and the cancellation of some summer programs due to the Lake Christine Fire that started in July 2018 “crippled the revenue and is what caused all of our debts to pile up,” said board president Kaika.

And at the start of the following year, the camp’s main lodge flooded after a pipe froze and leaked. Additionally, former executive director Lesa Thomas filed a lawsuit against the nonprofit in September 2021, alleging that it owed her close to $130,000 in compensation. The lawsuit has not yet been settled.

“I believe our camp complied and is still in compliance with any of the contracts that Lesa had with camp back then,” Kaika said.

How the organization’s finances unraveled is unclear, he said, as the board did not pursue a paper trail audit to better understand how its debt grew. 

Snowmass Creek flows through Aspen Camp of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing campus. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
Trails at Aspen Camp of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing include deaf-friendly circular seating for campers to be visible to each other for ease of communication. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

But when Kaika reflects on Aspen Camp today, he sees an entirely different place than the one that was barely scraping by three years ago. The nonprofit worked with a tax attorney who negotiated with the IRS, and it has since settled its bill. It was also able to pay off its debt, largely by partnering with Aspen Ski Company and the Town of Snowmass Village to benefit from beverage sales during the Roaring Fork Valley’s Thursday Night Concert Series. 

The organization also relied on help from local businesses who donated materials and time along with volunteers to repair the main lodge.

Kaika and fellow board members are now focused on re-establishing an endowment fund. Aspen Camp’s original endowment was drained after it was used to pay off debts, though he doesn’t know what debts it covered. He said board members have set up a small account in which they’re setting aside extra money generated by programs so that students like Sophia will continue to have a camp to return to — one that connects them with the outdoors, new friends who understand how they navigate the world and their own potential.

“Aspen Camp encourages you to explore limitless opportunities and explore boundless open doors,” Sophia said, “as it builds my confidence and ability to grow as an individual.”

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 8:45 a.m. on Monday, May 9, 2022 to correct the spelling of Meagan Feik’s name.

Erica Breunlin

Email: Twitter: @EricaBreunlin