Grace Hanlon began her experience at the New London County 4-H Camp at the age of 7. The camp, situated on 24 ½ acres in Franklin, CT, provides both day and over-night camping experiences to over 2,100 youth annually. 4-H is the youth development program of UConn Extension. As part of the University of Connecticut, 4-H has access to research-based, age-appropriate information needed to help youth reach their full potential. The mission of 4-H is to assist all youth ages 5-18 in acquiring knowledge, developing leadership and life skills while forming attitudes that will enable them to become self-directing, productive and contributing members of their families and communities.
Don Beebe, President of the New London County 4-H Camp Foundation recalls, “Grace was tiny but had a big personality. She was a great camper, always enthusiastic and with a wonderful smile. She grew into a very capable young lady with a can-do attitude, participating in the camp’s Teen Leader Program as well as the 4-H Teen Ambassador Program.” Unfortunately Grace’s life ended in 2016 at the age of sixteen in a car accident, leaving her family, friends and the 4-H camp devastated and searching for a way to honor and remember her.
After her death, Grace’s mother, Beth Hanlon, invited some of Grace’s camp friends over to talk about a fund that had been started after Grace’s death in support of the 4-H camp. One of the reasons the camp was chosen for the fund was that Grace was packed and ready to go to camp days before her death. Beth explained, “She loved it there. We wanted to hear about her experience from her camp friends and ask them how the funds should be used at the camp.” The group discussed things needed at camp that would represent Grace. It started as a structure for the counselors and Teen Leaders. The conversation eventually evolved into a multi-purpose structure abutting the dining hall and the project which quickly became known as “Grace’s Place” took off from there.
The addition’s construction began right after Thanksgiving that year. One of Grace’s friends mentioned that her father had a construction company and would like to help. About a week later, Beth received a text from the young lady saying, “My Dad’s name is Dan and he’s expecting a call from you.” At that point they needed to obtain other contractors and professionals to move the project forward. Beth added, “We have never built anything. General contractors we are not, and we have also never lost a child before. We were in the early stages of grief and not really sure what we were doing or why we were doing it.”
Paul Hanlon, Grace’s father, explained that this project in Grace’s name has been very therapeutic. It provides us with something to focus on and have control over.” Beth added, “the biggest piece we have taken from this from the day the accident happened and throughout the building project has been the unbelievable support.” As an example, Paul explained that they had huge trusses and beams that had to be put in place, and the builders said when they arrive, we are going to need a crane. Paul had no idea where he was going to get such a large piece of equipment. He actually googled crane companies and contacted a company by filling out information on their website. Under additional comments Paul explained what the project was for. A company responded shortly thereafter that if they could come on the weekend, the owner would do it for free. They completed the work on Memorial Day weekend right after major storms had devastated parts of Connecticut, so they were extremely busy. This company had no connection to Grace or the camp, but felt it was the right thing to do.
Paul explained that Grace was very social. “She taught me to be social,” he added. In order to make this project happen we had to come up with ways to raise money. The ways they have come up with so far have been community social events – trivia nights that have to be capped because of the enthusiasm and interest. Beth adds that this is about the camp and the kids. It’s a multi-purpose building that so many youths will benefit from. I know how much they need the space and how much it means to them.”
“This is an incredible addition to the camp,” Don Beebe said. “The fact that it’s tied to Grace actually adds another dimension because it’s not just going to be a building. Her story will be told forever. I think that’s quite a tribute to Grace and to her family who are allowing this to happen. This addition is hard for anyone to take on especially a family that is grieving. Construction is very expensive. They themselves have put a lot of their own time and money into this project. This is a program Grace clearly loved and excelled at. Her story will be a great inspiration to help young people understand the value of the program and what it did for her. It’s also a great thing for the community. Our teen program is growing. To actually have a place where the teens can meet and have activities will be extremely helpful. Obviously, it’s very sad to lose a child, but the fact that this family was able to turn such a tragic thing into such a happy thing is amazing.” Grace Hanlon will be affecting the lives of many youth in such a positive and inspiring manner. What a wonderful way to be remembered.
Article by Nancy Wilhelm, Program Coordinator, 4-H Youth Development