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Camp Harkness and vaccines, yesterday and tomorrow

On the snowy early morning when I got my first dose of the Pfizer anti-COVID vaccine, the wide open vaccination room was dotted with socially distanced people who qualified, by their age bracket, for immunization.

This wasn't my first time in a mass vaccination site. I mentioned to the nurse who was administering my shot that on another early morning, but on a steamy day in August, my father and I stood in line in the Hall High School auditorium in West Hartford for 7-year-old me to get the second of my three polio shots. Funny, she said. A lot of people have been saying that same thing this morning.

Of course they did. Connecticut children of elementary school age were lining up by the hundreds of thousands in the mid-1950s. Parents of those children would go any distance — we drove 50 miles before breakfast — for protection from a major scourge of childhood in the mid-20th century. Now those children are elders, presumably qualified to assume the mantle of older and wiser persons.

One thing we are dutybound to share is how grateful the Boomer generation and our parents were for those polio immunizations. The Salk and Sabin vaccines prevented a too common, crippling disease that had no cure. The best that could be done for most victims was to help them adjust to their new lot in life.

I'm reminded of this because on Monday Governor Lamont went to Camp Harkness in Waterford to announce a half million dollars in coming improvements to the recreational facilities there for people with developmental disabilities. Mary Harkness, the philanthropist who owned the Eolia mansion on Great Neck Road with her husband, Edward, started the camp in the 1920s on the east side of their 230-plus-acre property. Eligible campers were children disabled by poliomyelitis.

Polio. It was a hated and feared disease because it quickly ruined cells and tissues that could not be regenerated. It killed. It changed and limited lives. Mary Harkness lightened the load on survivors and their families by providing a free, private and beautiful place to vacation. After vaccines eradicated the polio threat, the camp opened to both children and adults with physical and mental developmental disabilities.

Since Mary Harkness's death in 1950 the camp has been operated by the Department of Developmental Services as one of the few state parks in the country reserved exclusively for citizens with intellectual or developmental disabilities. It is adjacent to but distinct from popular Harkness Memorial State Park, which is a open to the public during the day and not for camping or swimming.

The Camp Harkness approach is still to find the practical workarounds and pure fun that can make a person's sense of disability ignorable.

The $500,000 announced last week will be used to improve accessibility and infrastructure. The most basic improvement, however, will be a full reopening. The COVID pandemic accomplished in 2020 what proposed budget cuts could not in 2017. Forced to cut overall spending at the time, Gov. Dan Malloy included closure of Camp Harkness in his savings plan. The result was analgous to threatening the end of football in a school board budget. Camp Harkness supporters set up a howl heard in Hartford, and the camp stayed in business till last summer. Nor had enough people been vaccinated to risk full re-opening this year.

Connecticut is a better place because it sustains Camp Harkness and other programs that benefit its most vulnerable citizens. Still, I think there is another reminder in this story: Connecticut has made vaccination against the COVID virus easy for those over 12 to get, and has stood fast on requiring childhood immunizations against other diseases, including polio. Those early campers and their parents would have thought that the moral is obvious.

Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day Editorial Board.

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