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Helen Lamb, 96, founded Camp Jabberwocky for disabled children

Helen Lamb posed on Martha’s Vineyard in 2001 with Larry Perry, a camper from Camp Jabberwocky in the 1950s. Helen Lamb posed on Martha’s Vineyard in 2001 with Larry Perry, a camper from Camp Jabberwocky in the 1950s.
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / August 28, 2011

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Helen Lamb picked up the nickname Hellcat for her take-no-prisoners approach to driving, but it fit tidily with all aspects of her life, not least her decision in 1953 to found a summer camp on Martha’s Vineyard for the developmentally disabled that would become known as Camp Jabberwocky.

Told it would be impossible, she did so anyway. Turning down federal money and the intrusion of outsiders, she built the camp from a borrowed cottage into a 14-acre site in Vineyard Haven, always staffed entirely with volunteers.

Famously forthright, she spoke in far less delicate terms than most who work with the developmentally disabled.

In 1966, she told the Globe that in its early days, the camp drew some contributions from the island’s wealthy summer visitors who saw “this gang, like refugees, making our way to the beach - those who couldn’t walk, in wheelchairs; those who could, helping to push; others carrying suitcases, braces, and casts.’’

Mrs. Lamb remained remarkably healthy into her 90s, until “it was almost like she said, ‘This will be a good time to die, and so I’m going to die,’ ’’ said her son, John of Brookline. She began sleeping more, stopped eating, and then ceased taking fluids before dying Friday night, the eve of her birthday, in her Oak Bluffs home at 96.

“Helen was an inspiring person,’’ said Lynne L. Wolf, who chairs the board of trustees for Camp Jabberwocky, which is officially named Martha’s Vineyard Cerebral Palsy Camp Inc.

“I would call her a visionary,’’ Wolf said, “someone who saw a need to give folks with disabilities a chance to have a vacation - both the campers and their families - and to do something really fun.’’

In the beginning, few could envision the kind of camp Mrs. Lamb believed she could create. She was a speech therapist at a Fall River clinic that treated developmentally disabled clients, and “the doctors were telling her, ‘No, you can’t do this,’ and she said, ‘Well, I’m doing it anyway,’ ’’ her son said.

“In 1953,’’ he said, “people weren’t taking handicapped kids to camp because they were afraid they might have seizures, they were afraid they might die. She said these kids are trapped in their apartments with not much air conditioning, particularly the ones who are poor.’’

Her sister was renting a cottage called “Happy Days’’ in Oak Bluffs and let Mrs. Lamb use it for a month. A week at a time, she brought a few children to the island.

The cottages were “so close together you can literally shake hands from one piazza to the next,’’ she told the Globe in 1966. “And ours had no hot water, no bathrooms as such, no cooking facilities except an old oil stove, which never did work, but this was all I could afford.’’

The food wasn’t great that first summer, either, she added, “but the iodine from the water and the sunshine were both healthy assets.’’

The camp relocated to the 4-H clubhouse in Oak Bluffs the following summer. It grew year after year and in the mid-1960s, Grace Episcopal Church in Vineyard Haven donated land.

The camp eventually was dubbed Jabberwocky, from a poem by Lewis Carroll, author of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.’’ Nearly everything was donated. Mrs. Lamb persuaded stores and food companies to donate supplies and ferry operators to provide free tickets.

“She just would not take no for an answer,’’ her son said. “She had no embarrassment at all about going up to people and asking for money for the camp. She was always totally relaxed about that and felt it was everyone’s duty to help these kids.’’

Born Helen Southworth, she spent her first few years in England in Preston, part of Lancashire. Her family moved to the United States when she was 6 and settled in Dartmouth, returning to England when she was 12.

She attended what then was the Royal Manchester College of Music, where John Lamb, a violinist, was a teacher. Against her family’s wishes, they married in 1935, when she was 21.

“John Lamb was 15 years her senior,’’ their son said. “The Southworth clan thought of themselves as a little better than working class, and the Lambs were definitely working class. At any rate, they had a happy marriage.’’

Mrs. Lamb was a stage actress for a time and had three children before her husband died in 1950.

“She never remarried,’’ her son said. “She always said it was because she didn’t find anyone as good as John Lamb.’’

Instead, she moved with her children to Massachusetts, where part of her extended family still lived.

She worked for the clinic in Fall River and later, her son said, as a speech therapist for school districts in places such as Swansea, Somerset, Middleborough, and Rehoboth. She kept the commutes bearable by driving fast.

“That was how she got the name Hellcat,’’ her son said. “It was the way she drove. Everyone was scared to death to ride with her.’’

On occasion, he added with a laugh, “she would forget she was in America and drive on the left side.’’

Mrs. Lamb ran Camp Jabberwocky from 1953 until the early 1970s, when her son and daughter Gillian Lamb Butchman, who now lives in Seattle, took over.

Her presence, however, was still strongly felt at the camp and in the lives of campers and counselors who spent time there each summer.

“She not only inspired campers and gave them a fun summer, she inspired counselors, too,’’ Wolf said. “Several generations, hundred and hundreds of people, if not thousands, learned from her how to volunteer. She was just an amazing woman.’’

Mrs. Lamb’s son said that “she asked nothing less of herself than she did of everyone else. She was out there showing people how it should be done, and she expected them to work just as hard, too. A lot of counselors have come back, and some visited her when she was dying, to tell her how she literally changed their lives, how they wouldn’t be the people they are today without her.’’

A service will be announced for Mrs. Lamb, who in addition to her son and daughter leaves another daughter, Janet Lamb Kovac Schwarz, of Byron, Ga.; six grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.

Through the years, some who admired Camp Jabberwocky wanted to recreate its success elsewhere, but often worried about the challenging logistics.

A decade ago, at 86, Mrs. Lamb was as straightforward in her advice as she was with anything else in her life.

“A lot of people want to start a camp like this, but they complain they don’t have the money,’’ she told the Globe. “And I say, ‘Start small and grow.’ You don’t need money. Food can be donated. Volunteers can be found. That’s how I did it.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com.