By Steven Hoffman
The three little girls rushed at Patty Hillkirk, chanting her name excitedly in unison.
“Patty!” “Patty!” “Patty!” They exclaimed, forming a semi-circle around Hillkirk, who somehow matches the youngsters’ enthusiasm as the girls tell her about that day’s activities. She’s as happy to see them as they are to see her. Hillkirk didn’t start Camp Dreamcatcher for these little rock star moments, but she likes them just fine anyway. For her, the week-long camp is filled with special moments like this. There were 110 or so children at this year’s camp and Hillkirk has a relationship with each one. Some of those relationships stretch back 18 years to when she first founded the Kennett Square-based therapeutic program for children who have either been diagnosed with HIV or AIDS or have family members who have the disease. In total, 4,610 youngsters have benefited from Camp Dreamcatcher’s programs through the years.
Camp Dreamcatcher is, in some ways, a typical summer camp: Children ride Go-Karts, go fishing, play games, and swim. But there are also therapeutic programs and counseling sessions that help the youngsters work through a whole range of issues that they might be facing in their lives.
“We focus on HIV and AIDS, but the issues that we deal with are so much wider than that,” explained Hillkirk. “There are seven-, eight-, and nine-year-olds who tell us that they feel like they have to protect their moms. The issue of community violence comes up with every age group.”
The Chester County Crime Victims Center facilitated a program to talk about community violence, and they also held sessions on bullying.
“We also talk about the connections between drugs and alcohol and sexual assault,” Hillkirk said.
They also talk about risk factors and the importance of making good choices.
“The rate of HIV is increasing again,” Hillkirk said. “The rate in Philadelphia is five times the national average.”
Every session at camp is either fun or educational—and often a session will be both. The goal is to provide the campers with the knowledge and understanding that they need for the other fifty-one weeks of the year. That’s a huge challenge, but Camp Dreamcatcher has continually expanded its programs to help the youngsters throughout the year.
“The issues that these kids face are so much bigger than what we can deal with in a week. This might be the only place where they can talk about things,” Hillkirk said.
Cora Welsh is a child life specialist at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The hospital arranges to have between 20 and 30 of its young patients attend Camp Dreamcatcher each year. Welsh said that she thinks it’s beneficial because the children get to talk to others who are facing the same problems and challenges that they are. Seeing how the children act in this environment is helpful to Welsh.
“It gives me another window into who they are,” Welsh said. “Here, they are just kids. For me, it’s great to know that we have the therapeutic week for them in a supportive environment that is also fun.”
Camp Dreamcatcher returned to the sprawling Camp Saginaw property outside Oxford during this year’s camp, which took place from Aug. 18-24, after spending the last three years at the Westtown School. While the children liked Westtown, the move back to a camp area was popular with campers and volunteers alike.
“The kids are so happy to be back here,” said Katie Perigo, a camp assistant.
“It’s more of a camp atmosphere and it gives the kids who are from the city more of a camping experience,” explained camp assistant Emmalee Bierly.
“It really feels like home to them,” Hillkirk added.
Hillkirk said that the camp welcomed thirty-six new participants this year. There were 18 new campers in 2011 and 41 new ones in 2012, after Camp Dreamcatcher officials made a specific effort to bring in first-time campers.
“We want to build every year on the number of new campers that we have,” Hillkirk said. “We have a lot of new five- and six-year-olds this year.”
Hillkirk said that she never could have envisioned that Camp Dreamcatcher would develop into a program that helped the children year-round. It was originally conceived as just the one-week summer camp.
“We started with five volunteers at Camp Sunset Hill in Chadds Ford,” she said, explaining that when 53 kids gathered for the first summer camp, they slept in tents and were served by a total of 28 volunteers who offered therapy programs.
By 1999, Camp Dreamcatcher had expanded to the point where it was providing some sort of counseling and assistance to youngsters year-round.
Initially, Camp Dreamcatcher was to serve only children because, in the mid-1990s when Hillkirk was just starting the program, those youngsters infected with AIDS couldn’t hope to live much beyond their teenage years. That, thankfully, has changed as a result of much better care and treatment for people diagnosed with the disease.
Some of the children who started coming to Camp Dreamcatcher during the early years are now in their early twenties. Hillkirk has revamped and expanded the programming to meet the changing needs of the campers. The older boys and girls have transitioned to become camp counselors themselves, and some of the young adults are graduating college, getting jobs, and now starting their own families.
Hillkirk said that she has expanded the scope of Camp Dreamcatcher’s offerings to meet the changing needs of the campers as they mature.
“We’ve become the consistent force in their lives,” she said. “As they’ve aged, we’ve thought about what they need and how we can provide them with consistent support.”
This year, Camp Dreamcatcher launched a new mentoring program that pairs up volunteer mentors with the campers who are between the ages of 16 and 24. The goal is to have the mentors stay in regular contact with the young adults—there is a minimum requirement of four contacts each month—to provide assistance with school, work, or anything else that they need help with. The mentors are matched up with mentees based on age, location, and personalities, and qualifications. This program differs from traditional mentoring programs in one significant way.
“The unique thing about our mentoring program is that the mentors know our kids and we know all of our counselors,” Hillkirk explained.
The campers also have career buddies—professionals who volunteer their time to help the campers learn about potential careers by helping them arrange job-shadowing opportunities.
In recent years, Camp Dreamcatcher has really expanded its effort to help young adults pursue their dreams of attaining a college education. This help comes in many forms. Volunteers assist students as they fill out college applications or navigate through the complicated financial aid process. The experiences that the counselors-in-training gain can be helpful.
At this year’s camp, officials from the Immaculata University Admissions Department came to talk to the 16- and 17-year-olds who serve as leaders-in-training about what colleges are expecting from potential students.
Hillkirk said that most of the students benefit from this extra help.
“With the population that we work with, they won’t reach their goals on their own,” Hillkirk said.
This year, Doug Harris, a Kennett Square business owner and a supporter of Camp Dreamcatcher started a scholarship program in memory of his uncle, Paul Harris. The first recipients are Tranessa and Tyrell.
Tranessa is a 22-year-old who is starting her last semester at Prince George’s Community College. She was born with HIV, and while that has had a big impact on her life, she isn’t letting the disease shape her future. She is very well-spoken, bright, and healthy. She wants to be a nurse practitioner and care for others. She also currently works on a gun range as a range safety officer.
She grew up attending Paul Newman’s camp for children with serious illnesses. This is her second year at Camp Dreamcatcher and she sees a lot of similarities between the two. One of the reasons that she received the Paul Harris Human Potential Scholarship is her ability to work with and help youngsters.
“I’m able to mentor for the younger kids,” she said, “and it warms my heart.”
One of the issues that the young girls ask her about is when and how to tell their boyfriends that they are HIV positive. They’ve all lost friends after telling them that they have the disease.
Tranessa said that she was about 20 years old when she had to tell a boyfriend that she was HIV positive. She said that honesty is essential.
“I explain to them that you have to be honest,” she said. “I tell them not to worry about the boys who won’t accept you for who you are. If a boy won’t accept you, there are others who will. You don’t have to settle for less.”
For nearly 20 years, the children who attend Camp Dreamcatcher rave about its benefits, but making the camp a possibility is a never-ending challenge.
“All our programs are free for the kids,” Hillkirk said. “We have to raise about $280,000 for our annual operating budget and there’s a lot of competition for grants and donations.”
There are only two paid staffers at Camp Dreamcatcher. A bulk of the work is accomplished by dedicated group of approximately 200 volunteers, many of whom take vacations from work to make sure that they are there during the week of camp.
“We would not be here without our volunteers,” Hillkirk said. “The commitment that they have to the kids is unbelievable.”
Forty-six of the youngsters at this year’s camp are HIV positive. Welsh illustrated the importance of the camp with a story about a girl that she works with at Johns Hopkins Hospital who is HIV positive.
Secrecy is a major issue for children who have HIV. They often hide the disease from classmates, friends, and even family. This girl kept her medications hidden away in a closet, which certainly contributed to her not taking her medications regularly.
“It’s hard to navigate your way through life with this secret,” Hillkirk explained.
Welsh explained that patients have to be 95 percent adherent to their medication schedules to get the maximum benefit from the treatments. They knew that this girl had been missing a significant number of doses because of the lab results that she getting.
After spending a week at Camp Dreamcatcher, where the medications are strictly monitored, the girl had vastly improved results.
“Her viral load had gone down,” Welsh said. “We knew that being in a structured environment where they are monitoring her medications helped. This case illustrates all the benefits of the camp. It’s safe, it’s therapeutic, it’s fun, and it’s fun with a purpose.”