Camp Dreamcatcher: 20 years of changing lives
● By Steven Hoffman
During its 20-year history, Camp Dreamcatcher has provided free therapeutic and educational programs to nearly 5,000 youngsters whose lives have been adversely affected by HIV or AIDS. Patty Hillkirk, the founder and executive director of the camp, has a personal friendship with most, if not all, of the children who have sought the care, comfort, and companionship that the camp's staff provides. Hillkirk will tell anyone who asks that she considers the children not just friends, but part of her extended, loving family.
No matter how well they know each other, family members will still surprise each other from time to time. One discussion during this year's camp took Hillkirk by surprise, even though she has facilitated thousands, if not tens of thousands, of discussions with children through the years.
A group of about fourteen 10- and 11-year-olds from two different cabins were brought together for a discussion about how HIV or AIDS was impacting their lives. No sooner was this group of children in the same room together when one youngster started discussing very openly and honestly some of the issues that he was facing at home. The other youngsters listened without judgment and were soon trying to help the first boy by sharing their own experiences. No facilitator was needed for this talk. The children were going to lead it themselves.
“It was one of those moments,” Hillkirk explained, “when you say, ‘that’s why we’re here.’”
When Hillkirk makes this comment, she is wearing a t-shirt and lanyard from the first camp 20 years ago. This year's camp, which took place from Aug. 23 to Aug. 29 at Camp Saginaw in Oxford, is the start of a year of special activities to mark the 20th anniversary. As the Kennett Square-based organization reaches a major milestone in its history, it is a natural time to think about how far Camp Dreamcatcher has come since the first one was held at Camp Sunset Hill in Chadds Ford. There were 53 children and 28 counselors at that first camp, compared to approximately 130 campers this year.
“It’s been a year of a lot of reflection for our counselors and campers,” Hillkirk explained. “We've taken this as an opportunity to reflect on where we've been and where we're going.”
Hillkirk founded Camp Dreamcatcher in the mid-1990s to help children who were either HIV-positive themselves or who had close family members who were HIV-positive. She started the camp because she saw that children who were dealing with these challenges lived lives of secrecy and unnecessary shame. These children needed professional counseling; they needed adults in their lives that they could trust; they needed various forms of therapy; and they needed a safe environment where they can just be children.
“We focus on HIV and AIDS, but the issues that we deal with are so much wider than that. Many of our kids face issues of community violence or drug abuse,” Hillkirk explained, adding that many of the youngsters are also from families that struggle financially.
In an effort to address those wider issues, the Camp Dreamcatcher team presents therapeutic and counseling sessions that focus on real-world issues that many of the youngsters are facing: bullying, community violence, the need for proper nutrition and health, and the importance of making good life choices. As the needs of youngsters have evolved, Camp Dreamcatcher has responded by adding new programs throughout the year, including weekend retreats and leadership-in-training seminars, an adopt-a-family program at Christmastime, and a mentoring program that pairs younger children with an older camper or counselor. All these programs are free to participants. The week-long camp in the summer is still the focal point, drawing children children from throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, and Virginia, and it is enormously popular with the youngsters, many of whom come back year after year. Some of the children have been coming to camp for 19 out of the 20 years. Because so many children come back year after year, they form friendships with each other and look forward to the time together at camp, which blends typical summer camp activities like swimming or riding Go-Karts with a variety of therapeutic programs that are aimed at helping youngsters cope with the challenges that they face on a daily basis.
The fact that many of Camp Dreamcatcher's staff, therapists and volunteers also return year after year is vital because the children coming to camp are greeted by friendly, familiar faces.
Volunteers like John Farley are very important to Camp Dreamcatcher's success. Farley serves as a village chief and works closely with the children and counselors during the week-long camp. He has been volunteering for more than 12 years, ever since his fraternity at West Chester University held a fundraiser for the camp.
“We couldn’t ask for better volunteers,” Hillkirk said. “We have a core group of people who have been here for 15 to 20 years. They keep coming back every year, and many of them plan their vacations around the camp.”
As a result of its good work, the camp has also earned consistent contributions from a network of supporters who provide the financial help the camp needs to expand programs and meet the needs of youngsters.
According to Hillkirk, the need for the programs provided by Camp Dreamcatcher is greater than it ever has been.
There were 45 new children in this year’s camp, most of them between the ages of five and eleven. Many are HIV-positive and are in the early stages of learning to deal with the ailment.
“I’m surprised at the number of new kids, and the number of HIV-positive new kids,” Hillkirk explained.
In some very important ways, the lives of youngsters diagnosed with AIDS are much better than they were 20 years ago, when the the life expectancy of an HIV-positive youngster didn't extend much beyond the teenage years. There have been significant advancements in treatments and medications, and a child who leads a healthy lifestyle and takes all the necessary medications can now expect to grow up and lead a productive life.
However, many of the same challenges that were present 20 years ago still exist, which is evident when the children talk about the things that they struggle with—bullying, for example, or feelings of isolation.
There is an alarming trend of increasing HIV rates in small pockets of the country. There are a number of factors that contribute to spikes in HIV cases, including the use of intravenous needles by drug users, mothers who have HIV and fail to take their medications as prescribed, and a large percentage of people—approximately 20 percent—who have HIV or AIDS and don’t know that they have it.
Hillkirk explained that AIDS doesn’t receive nearly the amount of attention that it received at one time, and consequently many people don’t think it’s an important issue.
That just makes the opportunity to come together for camp even more important for the youngsters. The children who attend the camp often say that Camp Dreamcatcher is a safe place where they can share their concerns and fears with people who understand them.
At Camp Dreamcatcher, fifteen-year-olds are like seniors in high school because it is the last year that they attend the camp as regular campers before advancing to the leadership-in-training program. Also, like seniors in a high school, they are often looked up to by the other children. Once the teens join the leadership-in-training program, they accept more responsibilities by working with the campers who are younger than they are.
Brandon Selby has been attending Camp Dreamcatcher for four years, and is now one of the 15-year-olds poised to enter the Leadership-In-Training program.
“I would like to take what I’ve learned, take what I’ve experienced, and share it with the kids,” explained Selby, who lives in the Philadelphia area. “Overall, it’s a very good experience here at camp. It’s great to see the counselors and the campers every year. It’s a place to have fun and relax,” explained Selby. “I get to see old and new faces.”
“I like all the different activities and the friends that I make here,” explained Taylor Heard, who was attending the camp for the third time.
Tyson Taylor, 15, from the Baltimore area, also said that he is looking forward to joining the Leadership-In-Training program next year. He wants to return to camp because it is so different from his daily life.
Mahaybe Crowder, who lives in the Philadelphia area, attended the camp for the first time in 2014. This year, she made some new friends and really enjoyed her time at the camp. She said that if she were to offer advice to someone attending camp for the first time, she would tell them to be patient and stick it out.
“It’s just like the first day of school,” Crowder said.
The variety of activities at the camp make it an enjoyable experience for everyone—which is an important balance to the therapeutic sessions, which can be emotional for everyone involved.
While the arrival of the campers is very exciting, and the last day has some sadness to it because camp is over, the emotional apex of Camp Dreamcatcher is always the wish-log ceremony, where children can share their thoughts, feelings, and concerns. They can dedicate their wishes to a loved one who is suffering, or wish for better health for themselves.
“It’s the time when you can say what you want and how you feel,” explained James Hall, 15, who has been coming to camp for 11 years.
The children at Camp Dreamcatcher say that they are glad that this camp is available to them, and many can’t imagine life without it.
“It’s a big part of my life,” said Katrina Miller, a 15-year-old who has been coming to camp since she was five. “I’m coming back next year. I feel like it would be a big part of me that would go away if I didn’t come back to camp.”
Selby echoed that sentiment.
“This camp is one of the best things that you can have in your life,” Selby said. “There are going to be sad moments, there are going to be heavy moments, and then there are going to be those fun moments. You have to take the time and look around and say that I am thankful for being here.”
For information about how to volunteer or help, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.campdreamcatcher.org.