The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp was founded in 1988 by the late Hollywood legend Paul Newman, who believed passionately that all children, including those who suffer from serious illnesses such as cancer and sickle cell disease, should have the opportunity to experience the “transformational spirit and friendships” associated with camp. Last fall, Civil Engineering professor and professional engineer Howard Epstein, Ph.D. learned that the Camp would be celebrating its 25th anniversary, and the news reminded him that some years ago, UConn civil engineering students regularly interacted with the Camp personnel as part of their capstone Senior Design experience.
Epstein contacted then Camp director Matthew Cook to propose a rekindled relationship. For Epstein, the opportunity to engage engineering seniors in realistic design projects that also carry a deeper emotional resonance was a driving force. Cook says “I thought immediately of two projects that might enhance the Camp experience for campers while benefitting from the creative energy and technical knowledge of the students.”
Epstein and Charles Elias, P.E. of George Torello Engineers, P.C., who co-advises the undergraduate engineering team, met with Cook to flesh out the details and discuss other possible collaborations. Engineering seniors Luis Alfonzo, Sokheang Chay, David Curtis, Pearse McManus, Robert Ouellette and Ryan Smith then met with Cook twice in the fall to discuss the proposed projects, stroll the grounds, take measurements and explore not only the topography but also the project parameters. For their second visit, the team deliberately chose a rainy day with the objective of understanding how precipitation drained off the sites.
Both projects are aimed at enhancing access and the Camp experience for campers. “It’s really cool to be a part of a project that’s more than just engineering,” remarks McManus, who hails from Madison, CT. “When we met with Mr. Cook, he emphasized how our work could positively impact the campers – the magnitude of the job from a quality of life perspective for these special children.”
One project involves the design of a new approach to the Camp’s popular horse barn, continuing to promote the best possible access for campers. Several specific requirements for the project include a large, flat area in front of the barn enabling hay wagons to maneuver and sufficient road width to accommodate both roadside parking and unimpeded traffic flow.
Cook notes that the new road design must also continue to provide campers easy access to the labyrinth of horse trails that begin at the barn and extend out around the property. “I had contemplated how the road might be redesigned for some time, but as I walked around the Camp with the students, I began to see the potential from their civil engineering perspective.”
Cost was another consideration. McManus says “The Camp is a nonprofit, so it was important to ensure our designs took into account the cost of materials, land preparation, construction and durability. For example, the Camp initially hoped to have a barn access road that would wind through what is currently a heavily wooded area with varying grades. It would have required tree removal and grading before a road could be installed. To avoid these expenses, we devised an alternative that takes advantage of an existing maintenance road, from which the new access road could branch off to provide safe vehicle and camper access to the barn.”
The second project involves the design of a meditative deck extending from a wheelchair-accessible path to Pearson Pond, located in the central core of the Camp. Cook explains, “The deck project is aimed at creating a multi-purpose spot where campers and counselors may come for quiet reflection or offer nature programs to our campers.” The pond is alive with fish, a variety of birds, ducks and geese, and several large turtles, he notes.
McManus says the team’s design includes a safety rail, follows the pond’s contours for 90 feet, assures a safe and quiet locale for campers, and rests about two-to-three feet above the existing grade atop stout posts.
During the current semester, the students will further refine their designs to include greater detail, such as specific recommendations for the construction materials, estimated site preparation and construction costs, and exact siting. McManus notes that during the holiday break, team members obtained topographical maps of the Camp that they will overlay with detailed CAD schematics. The team will also inspect existing boardwalks at the Camp and prepare an inspection report.
In late April, as the semester winds to an end and the seniors prepare to commence their engineering careers, the students will present the detailed design proposals and schematics for both projects to The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp.
Cook, who began working at Hole in the Wall as a counselor in 1992 and served as director for 12 years before moving into his current role as director of the Camp’s wilderness-based Hero’s Journey program for older campers, has been pleased with the collaboration. “The students have been great – very professional and thoughtful in their approach. And I am grateful to professor Epstein for remembering us and offering us the opportunity to interact with the engineering team in developing ideas that may directly benefit the campers we serve.”