Key Lime Hillary Cupcakes - A Tribute to Camp Merrywood and to Hillary

This post has been a long time coming. It's just been so difficult to write, but I've finally been able to straighten my thoughts enough to write it in the way I think it should be written. If you're here for the recipe, by all means scroll down to the bottom - this one's going to be a little long. But for those of you here to share another little piece of my life, read carefully. This blog post, and this cupcake mean the most to me out of any I have ever written or made, and soon you will understand why. Thank you, as always dear readers, for allowing me into your homes/offices/wherever you're reading this and for letting me share with you.

The summer of 2011 changed my life.

I should probably back-track to January 2011. It was at the annual family Christmas gathering, the first not hosted by my aunt Nancy as she had past away the previous February from cancer. All of us were sitting around chatting about what was new and what we had been up to that year, and, I guess more pertinent to the story, what we had planned for the rest of the year. I was in first year university at the time, and other than finishing off the year, I had no plans. I figured when summer hit, I would be back in my hometown and working at the same grocery store I had been working at for three years, seeing some old friends and buying time until I came back to Toronto for second year. 

Among the family that was present was my first cousin once removed, Barb (My dad's first cousin). For as long as I could remember, she was the director of an Easter Seals camp, a camp for children and young adults with physical disabilities, and, sure enough when the conversation came around to her plans, she was busy hiring and making arrangements for the 2011 camp session. I heard myself saying "maybe I should apply" half-jokingly, figuring the hiring had probably been wrapped up by now. To my surprise, she said "you should! Here's my email and here's where to find the application".

As I said, for as long as I can remember, this is what Barb did during the summer. And every Christmas she would be full of amazing stories to share about camp. But I had never thought about being part of the story. I had worked in retail since I was 16 years old, and sure I had attended camp when I was younger, but I had never pictured myself travelling 6 hours away from everyone I knew to spend my summer working at a camp, particularly one with campers who had physical disabilities.

I will clarify that this is not because I had anything at all against people with physical disabilities. I just never pictured myself being thrown into that environment and being the person that they were to depend on for their time at camp. I had no experience in this kind of environment, and it sounded like something way out of my comfort zone! What if I messed up? What if I didn't know what to do? But the more I thought about it, the more excited I became. Up until this moment in my life, I had been a very safe person; always make the safe choice, always take the sure thing, limits are there for a reason, were just some of my mantras. I didn't want to leave my teenage years not having taken a chance on anything, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought, why not? It was nerve-wracking, exciting, and exhilarating all at the same time (and this is before I even filled out the application. Jumping the gun or what?) but it was a chance I wanted to take.

I'll fast forward now. Me on the phone interviewing for a councillor position and getting accepted (hold your applause please), then hearing about a programmer position where I had the chance to run music and drama programs for the campers. This was me up, down, and sideways! Back before cupcakes ruled my life (haha) music was my biggest passion and probably my biggest talent as well. Cue separate phone interview, me getting the position (okay now you may applaud) and the LONGEST TWO MONTHS EVER as I sat at home waiting to go. 

I'll fast forward again and give you a brief overview of what was, I can officially say, the most amazing and life-changing summer I have ever had in my life (and for those of you Merrywood-ers, you know exactly what I'm talking about). I found out that all of my worries about not knowing what to do were for not, as the staff was put through a rigorous pre-camp session of practical training, information sessions, and last but CERTAINLY not least, lifting passports (think endless bouts of rigorous squatting; if my legs could talk they would have been screaming!). After pre-camp. any of the worries that may have been lingering were melted away when I interacted with my first camper. I can honestly say that I have never seen anyone so full of life as I have when the campers came through those gates. Every day a camper would give me a new reason to smile (more accurately every other minute I would have a new reason to smile. I was just smiling all the day long), and a new reason to appreciate life. That isn't to say that the summer was easy. It was very physically and emotionally demanding, personal space was at a minimum and limits were being tested left and right, but without a word of a lie, when I left those gates on August 19th with tears streaming down my face, I was a new person, and I still am today. Camp taught me to appreciate every moment, to stop and smell the flowers and really EXPERIENCE the life that I'm living. It taught me that I am so much stronger than I think (both physically and emotionally) and it even helped me overcome the fear of water/boats that I have had ever since I was little.I truly believe that Camp Merrywood is the most magical place in the world, and I can't wait to be able to visit it again someday. 

Another huge thing that camp gave to me was strong life changing friendships. Since day one, the Merrywood staff bonded quicker than I have ever seen a group of people that size bond. On days off we would dress up and go to Walmart (yes, this actually happens), or go out to Perth together to a restaurant or a dance club and dance the night away, none more determinedly or veraciously as one of the councillors named Hillary. She was always the first person to start a dance circle and the last one to leave it, dancing like no one was watching her with a determined look in her eyes and a grin on her face. But this was so different than the first impression that I had of her. When I first met her, I remember thinking that she was quiet and reserved, but I suppose that's before I got to know her. I first saw her come out of her shell during one of my programs called "Musical Jenga". Basically the game was just like regular Jenga, but each block would have an instruction like "sing your favourite camp song" or "what would your rockstar name be?". During the game a camper pulled a block that said "Sing a Lady Gaga song" and they were a bit shy and didn't want to do it. All of a sudden from across the circle Hillary burst into the beginning of 'Bad Romance' (The Ra Ra A-A-A partand had everyone in stitches. From that day on I got to know the real Hillary; the hilarious, country-loving down home girl who loved kids and could brighten anyones day with a smile. Hillary and I became close friends and this friendship lasted even outside of those camp gates, even though she was in Sudbury and I was in Toronto. We didn't talk as much as I would have liked, but when we did it was like no time had elapsed and conversation flowed like ever. I thought I had really found a lifelong friend in Hillary, and her in me. This brings me to the next part of my story.

January 4th 2012 changed my life.

It started as a pretty normal Wednesday. I remember that I had just had a particularly vexing French class, and I had just got home, ready to unwind. I checked my Facebook like I usually do after class and that's when I saw it; a facebook status from a mutual friend and coworker, and someone she was very close to, named Chris, saying "I will always miss you. Someday we will go fishin in the dark, I promise. And I keep my promises. Will always be the brightest star in my sky....". I knew it was about Hillary and my heart fell into my shoes. 

It turns out that she had been in a car accident the previous day, while heading back to Sudbury. She was taken to hospital where she then passed away. I didn't know how to respond. a simply "RIP Hillary" in a facebook status would not be enough to sum up the amazing, funny, selfless person that she was, and the great loss that came with her death. The entire Merrywood family was in shock and everyone grieved together over facebook, even though at this point we were all spread out across the globe. We all wanted to do something to commemorate Hillary, to show what an amazing person the world had lost, but none of us were quite sure how to do it ... then I had an idea.

If you know me personally, or have been reading this for a while, dear readers, you'll know that I bake for every occasion: when I'm happy, when I have an assignment I want to put off, when I'm lonely, and when I'm sad. Well, I don't know about you, but to me there are very few things that are sadder than losing a friend, so I did what I do best; I baked. 

I created a key lime cupcake in memory of Hillary; I chose this flavour because it reminds me of summer, the time that I got to know her and become her friend. I then created a fundraiser called "Cupcakes for Hillary" where I would make and sell these cupcakes to people that I knew, all the proceeds going to Easter Seals in her name. I told my fellow Merrywood staff about it, and the idea took off like a rocket. I made an online fundraiser so that people who didn't live near me could still learn about the cause and donate if they felt so inclined. And did they ever! In a little less than a month $4,200 dollars was raised in her name. Now, I should explain the significance about this amount of money. It takes $2,000 to send a deserving child to camp who would not have the chance to go otherwise due to financial troubles or what have you. This means that in Hillary's memory, two children will be entering those gates this summer who would not have otherwise gotten the chance. This outpouring on support from friends and strangers in Hillary's memory has touched not only me, but fellow Merrywood staff, Easter Seals, Hillary's own family, and everyone that knew her, because she truly was a wonderful person, and she truly did love working at Merrywood (she even submitted her application to come back this summer before she passed away). She is well missed, and she will never be forgotten.

So as you can see, dear readers, these cupcakes mean a lot to me. I make them when I'm sad, or when I'm particularly happy about something, or when I find myself missing her more than usual. I know she's with me and I know she'll be watching over the campers and the councillors at Merrywood this summer. If you've stayed with me this long, thank you for letting me share this with you. I really hope that you make these yourselves, because in a way I think they're kind of magical. I hope when you make them, you feel a little bit of that magic too.

Happy Baking.

1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature and diced
2 cups granulated sugar
4 eggs
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
3 cups sifted cake flour
1 cup half-and-half
Preheat oven to 350° F. Line two 12-cup muffin pans with paper liners and sprinkle 1-2 tablespoons graham cracker crumbs in the bottom of each cup. In a large mixing bowl (or bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment), beat butter and sugar with an electric mixer on high speed, scraping down the sides of the bowl as you go. Mix until butter is light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. With mixer running on low speed, add the eggs, one at a time. Scrape down sides of the bowl and mix well after each addition. Add the vanilla extract and mix well. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. In a medium bowl, whisk together the cake flour, salt and baking powder. Add about one-third of the flour mixture to the batter. Beat on low speed until well blended. Scrape sides of the bowl. Add about 1/3 of the half-and-half and beat well. Continue adding the remaining flour and half-and-half alternately, beating well after each addition. Scrape down sides of the bowl. Scoop the batter into the prepared muffin pans using either an ice cream scoop or tablespoon. Fill muffin cups until they are approximately 3/4 full. Bake cupcakes for 12-15 minutes. Remove pans from oven and place on wire racks. Allow cupcakes to completely cool in the pan before filling and frosting.

1/2-cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons grated key lime zest (about 4-5 key limes)
1/4 cup freshly squeezed key lime juice (8-10 key limes)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, diced

In a medium saucepan combine sugar, eggs, lime zest and juice. Cook mixture over medium-low heat, whisking constantly. Cook until mixture begins to thicken and hold the mark of a whisk ran through it; about 10-15 minutes. 

Remove pan from heat. Whisk in diced butter a few pieces at a time. Mix until well combined. Strain mixture through a fine sieve or cheese cloth. Cover mixture tightly with plastic by laying plastic wrap directly on the surface of the curd. This prevents a film from forming. 

Chill for 3 hours or overnight to set the curd.

1 (8 oz.) brick of cream cheese
1 stick salted butter
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Juice of approx. 3 key limes
3 cups powdered sugar
Zest of 3 key limes

Put cream cheese and butter in a mixer on medium speed and cream together. Add in the vanilla and mix until combined. Add in the lime juice and the powdered sugar, alternating between each addition. Add the zest and hand-mix just until combined.


  1. Oh my God Sarah!!!! I am actually crying. what a beautiful post. Merrywood is magical and I too believe that this summer Hilary will be watching us and the campers and perhaps even send some sign that she is there.

    Amanda St. Dennis

  2. Thank you for writing this Sarah. I know it must have been hard. And thank you for helping all of us remember Hillary in a way that celebrates her life and what she brought to the magic of camp.



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