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Maria Shriver

My Project: Clea Newman and the SeriousFun Children’s Network

In 1988, Hollywood legend and philanthropist Paul Newman founded the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Ashford, Connecticut. His goal was simple: to help seriously sick kids reach beyond the daily realities of illness to experience the simple joy of camp, the thrill of just being a kid, and all free of charge.

Image: Hollywood legend and philanthropist Paul Newman helping sick kids "raise a little hell" at camp.
Hollywood legend and philanthropist Paul Newman helping sick kids "raise a little hell" at the Hole in the Wall Gang camp. SeriousFun Network

That one camp -- named for the outlaw gang in Newman’s 1969 hit “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” -- was the beginning of a philanthropic effort that now spans the globe, reaching children from 50 countries and across five continents. It’s called the SeriousFun Children’s Network, and in addition to its worldwide camp locations (there are now 30 camps in total), the network has a Global Partnership Program enabling it to reach kids and families in developing countries.

Today, Clea Newman, daughter of Paul and Joanne Woodward, works to continue her father’s philanthropic legacy and to ensure that the project, which meant so much to him, continues to grow and thrive.

Here, Newman shares how the work has made her more compassionate and determined, and says that in 2015 she will commemorate her father’s “infectious generosity” by honoring what would have been his 90th birthday with a year-long celebration.

What motivated you to get involved in this work?

My parents, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, taught me from a very young age to make giving back and service to others a part of everyday life, and they exemplified that message with their actions. SeriousFun Children’s Network started in 1988 when my Dad founded The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Connecticut, a place where children with serious illnesses could - as Dad used to say - kick back and ‘raise a little hell.’ Through his efforts, and those of other passionate founders, one camp has now grown to 30 camps and programs around the world. I’ve been involved in one way or another since the beginning -- working at camp, volunteering, fundraising and now working full time for SeriousFun to help further the legacy my father started.

What have you been most surprised to learn?

Everyone I talk to who attended some type of camp as a kid, lights up when they remember their experience. Even in countries where camp culture is not as common, similar childhood experiences of adventure, trying new things, and making new friends, brings back fond memories and smiles. Camp has a profound and life-long impact on people. It reminds me every day that what we’re doing at SeriousFun camps is making a world of difference for these amazing kids.

Image: Clea Newman and SeriousFun Children’s Network participants
Clea Newman and SeriousFun Children’s Network participants. SeriousFun Children’s Network

What do you most want people to know?

Children with illness are not defined by their illness. They’re kids. They want the same things as other kids: they want to feel like they belong, they want to make friends and attend school; they want to have fun and feel good about themselves. Doctor’s visits, time in hospital, medical treatments, and the stigma associated with having an illness, often robs children of these quintessential experiences. They need our love and support even more. And so do their families –- parents and siblings –- whose lives often revolve around the same challenges.

Children with illness are not defined by their illness. They’re kids. They want the same things as other kids: they want to feel like they belong, they want to make friends and attend school; they want to have fun and feel good about themselves.

Who or what has made the greatest impression on you during your involvement?

Every person involved in SeriousFun, from staff to volunteers to donors, all inspire me to do this work. They are selfless, loving and generous. They are tenacious in their aim to provide safe and excellent programming and facilities that meet the needs of our kids.

What has been the hardest part of this work, or how has this work challenged you?

Camps require a great deal of resources to operate, especially given the elevated medical presence and increased staff support needed to serve our campers free of charge. Even though we have some incredibly generous donors, we’re still competing for funding with other charities and ventures across the globe that are tackling a social problem, or providing care or comfort to those less fortunate. But it’s also a motivator. I’ve worked with these kids. I know our families. What we do helps them immensely. The challenge of fundraising gives me the opportunity to share how camp affects everyone. Whether someone ends up donating or not, I am able to educate them to the realities of the families we serve and help them to see a view of the world they may not have before.

How has this work changed you?

I’m a better person because of camp. I’m more compassionate, more determined, more open to explore the world and more connected to people. It’s hard to even think about a different path actually, since I’ve been connected to this experience for so long.

What goal do you have for the next 12 months?

My father would have celebrated his 90th birthday in 2015, and I have been working to plan a year-long celebration in his honor. It’s not about his birthday though. It’s about his incredible legacy and infectious generosity that continues to thrive in his absence. Most importantly, it will be a SeriousFun celebration of our camps and the amazing kids and families they serve. Dad wouldn’t have wanted the spotlight on him. But you can’t overlook the hundreds of thousands of children and families that camps have impacted, and he would be overjoyed in celebrating their courageous spirits!

In the next 12 months, I certainly hope people will be inspired to support SeriousFun and send more children to camp for a life-changing experience -- but even more so to make giving back and service to others a part of their everyday lives. As my mother used to say to me when I was little, “It is the best thing you can do with your day.”

For more information and inspiration visit MariaShriver.com