The island of Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts is a summer retreat popular with celebrities, and Presidents like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. It is also where brothers Will and Peter Halby worked each summer at a vacation camp for adults and children with disabilities.
That experience would have a profound affect on both of their lives, giving them the inspiration and the determination to carry on similar work in the years that followed.
“I was 15 and met really interesting people,” says Peter. “It’s like a hook that gets into you. It shifted everything I thought about what disability was like. I saw a lot of beauty in it and adventure. I really liked it.”
Luckily, Will Halby was also hooked and so was a young camp counselor named Ila, an island girl who would become Peter’s wife and a partner in shaping a vision for their future work. The Halby Circle was complete when Will met and married Vanessa. All four had worked in programs and camps for adults with developmental disabilities and all four found the work profoundly rewarding.
“We joked that some day we would buy a big piece of property and raise our kids and do this kind of work,” says Peter.
15 years ago, they took the first step toward realizing that dream.
In the mid-90s, Peter and Will Halby and their wives, Ila and Vanessa, teamed up to create a non-profit with a mission of organizing specialty camps for the disabled themed around music, art, theatre and sports. They started a sports-oriented camp in Florida and one in Hollywood where the focus, not surprisingly, was filmmaking.
“What is produced through these activities,” says Will, “is a unique bonding experience shared between the participants individually, resulting in strong friendships, and a supportive community of people.”
“Our flagship camp is the film camp where every year we gather to produce an original film, with the goal of turning the current Hollywood model inside out.”
The cast and crew of these camp films are men and women with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and others disorders. Over three weeks, they write, shoot and complete a film, created entirely by an integrated group of more than 80 people, many of whom are disabled.
“The characters are three-dimensional; disability is not the focus of their character arc. Furthermore, all the actors take part in a project that carries deep resonance and social value. We work hard to create high quality film and there is a pay off with that beyond entertainment.”
In the fall of 2008, the four Halbys began looking for a site on the east coast where they could establish another camp. They were committed to spending their lives creating opportunities for and with people with disabilities and diverse needs. They found the perfect spot: twenty acres on a mountain top in Lincoln, Vermont where they could spread their philosophy that friendship, community and knowing that people matter to each other are the most important things in life.
“Vanessa always said she wanted to move back to Vermont and have a commune. This is a little bit of a different take on that,” says Peter.
That same year, they decided to name their organization of camps Zeno Mountain Farm.
One hundred days a year, Zeno offers a variety of experiences and activities to approximately 500 people from ages 6 to 65, with and without disabilities, from theatre production to filmmaking, from conducting a sports/music week, to hosting a health and wellness retreat.
“We’re very project-based, and for a reason,” says Will. “If you have a goal, it makes day-to-day challenges like personality issues or lack of sleep almost irrelevant.”
Zeno considers all those who attend the camps as family. And so the camps are free. No one is paid and no one pays to attend.
And there is an added bonus: the invitation to Zeno lasts a lifetime. Participants are welcome to come back year after year, generation after generation, initiating lifelong friendships and further strengthening the Zeno community.
“The main purpose of Zeno is to create great art and to celebrate diversity,” says Will. “We’re so happy with it and it’s such a beautiful reflection of not just what we do but our culture. Diversity is beautiful and this is the most diverse community I can imagine.”
Currently, Zeno has grown to comprise 8 camps operating in Los Angeles, Vermont and Florida, and 4 others run in partnership with other organizations. Among the three new camps opening this year, one called “Welcome Home” will be focused on combat veterans with PTSD.
The work of the Halby brothers and their wives gained nationwide attention in 2014 with the release of the documentary “Becoming Bulletproof” by director Michael Barnett. It is a behind-the-scenes chronicle of the making of Zeno’s first original Western at its Los Angeles camp.
“Viewers see honest, friendship-based inclusion that is not preachy nor manipulative, says Will. “Perhaps more importantly, people with disabilities and their families see themselves on screen and can say, ‘I belong.’"
And that’s what keeps the Halbys committed to a vision that began during a teenager’s summer job. Will, Peter, Ila and Vanessa are raising their combined six children and working in the community of their dreams.
“It’s cool because we came to it individually but we have such a shared passion for this,” says Ila.
“It feels so good,” says Peter, “when everyone pitches in. My happiest moments are when I’m walking around, watching 80 people doing something. Everyone contributes to the best of their ability, everyone is important, everyone has something they can do. They all count. It’s awesome.”
If you would like to help out at Zeno, or if you have a friend or loved one who might benefit from the experience, go to zenomountainfarm.com