'Our kids are so resilient'
By Steven Hoffman
Eleanor Roosevelt once observed that “it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”
Twenty years ago, there was plenty of darkness for children whose lives had been impacted by HIV or AIDS. If a parent or a sibling suffered from AIDS, the children’s lives could be dominated by a sense of grief and loss. And if the children themselves were HIV-positive, they often led lives of secrecy and unnecessary shame—in addition to the serious health issues that came with the disease. The children might hide their medications from others or avoid forming close relationships altogether because they didn't want anyone to find out about their illness.
Patty Hillkirk knew that many of these children who were dealing with these enormous challenges could benefit from counseling and therapy and love and support from adults. She also knew that the children needed a safe, welcoming environment where they could be around other children who understood what they were going through.
So instead of cursing the darkness, Hillkirk lit a candle. She founded Camp Dreamcatcher in the mid-1990s, and for each of the last 21 summers, children from throughout the Mid-Atlantic region have come together for a camp that blends the fun and friendships of a traditional summer camp with a variety of therapeutic programs aimed at helping the children overcome their challenges and mature into happy, productive adults.
This year's camp took place from Aug. 20 to Aug. 27 at Camp Saginaw in Oxford. According to Hillkirk, there were plenty of familiar faces among the 120 campers—including Zyan, who said that she looks forward to spending a week with all her friends as they enjoy swimming, playing games, and dozens of other activities.
“I never miss out on a year,” Zyan explained. “I love this camp.”
The camp is for children between the ages of 5 and 17, though some older teens and young adults now serve in leadership-in-training or camp counselor positions. About 70 percent of the youngsters come from Philadelphia and the surrounding counties. A lot of the children come from the Baltimore area and Wilmington, Del. as well. One of the youngest children at this year's camp was Mikayla, who said that her favorite part of the experience was swimming and making a lot of new friends.
“It has been really fun,” Mikayla said.
Hillkirk loves to hear that the children are having fun at camp, but of course there is a more serious aspect to it, too. The rate of HIV infections has remained steady for the last two decades, Hillkirk noted, and consequently raising awareness about HIV testing, treatment, education and outreach are more important than ever.
“We’re getting new campers who are HIV-positive and younger, which is troubling,” Hillkirk explained.
During its 20-year history, Camp Dreamcatcher has provided its therapeutic and educational programs to more than 5,000 youngsters whose lives have been affected by HIV or AIDS. The 21 camp sessions, 26 weekend retreats, more than 500 HIV education and outreach programs to schools and community groups amounts to about $4.5 million in programs or services that have been provided free of charge. But Camp Dreamcatcher also offers the children something more: A place where they receive comfort, care, and companionship from Hillkirk, the staff, and the volunteers. It’s one big extended family.
Rebecca Levenberg is one of the members of that family.
Levenberg, a Philadelphia resident, was a longtime volunteer at Camp Dreamcatcher. She's a teacher and has an easy rapport with the children. Six years ago, she was riding a bicycle to work when she was struck by a garbage truck that was attempting to make a right-hand turn and entered the bike lane at just the wrong time. Levenberg suffered serious injuries that would require more than a dozen surgeries. One of the first was a life-saving procedure to remove most of her left leg.
Levenberg underwent extensive rehabilitation, including prosthetic training. She took her first steps in February of 2011, and was fitted with a state-of-the-art prosthetic that allows her to walk, bike, and do many other activities. She started a blog to document her experiences, and set a goal for herself to walk 1,000 miles.
This year, she returned to Camp Dreamcatcher for the first time since the accident, making a special presentation to the kids about her recovery and the emotional and physical struggles that came with it.
Levenberg previously taught at the elementary level, but now teaches middle school and high school students at an independent school in Philadelphia. She kept the kids at Camp Dreamcatcher fully engaged during her presentation, talking about how her life was changed by the accident.
Levenberg’s story resonated with the youngsters—as did her unyielding positive attitude in the face of adversity. She was able to tell the youngsters that she has now walked 4,275 miles—and counting—since the accident.
“I know that a lot of people at Camp Dreamcatcher have experienced loss,” Levenberg explained. “You have to work your way through it.”
No one could be unchanged after such a devastating accident, but Levenberg refused to allow the loss of her leg to change who she was or how she lived her life.
Overcoming challenges is something that the children at Camp Dreamcatcher understand.
Hillkirk noted that Levenberg was always a very positive person who could calmly handle any situation that came up at camp.
“She has always been so upbeat,” Hillkirk said. “Rebecca knows our kids. So when someone asks her how she got through this, she can share her own experiences about what she went through.”
The very fact that Levenberg would stand in front of the youngsters and talk so candidly about her story provided a valuable lesson to the kids. Sharing is an important part of the camp, and the more open and honest the children can be about what they are feeling, the more beneficial the counseling is.
“The issue of HIV is still something that the kids don’t talk about any place else but here,” Hillkirk explained. “Our goal this year was to make sure that each child had a program on HIV during the camp. With our program for teens, we really challenge them to take the HIV status in their lives and turn it into a positive.”
Hillkirk noted that while there is a focus on HIV and AIDS because that is the one issue that impacts all the youngsters at camp, they also address topics like community violence, drug abuse, bullying, and the importance of making good life choices. This year, they had a therapist come in to educate the kids about eating disorders, and another speaker talked to the kids about suicide prevention.
Camp Dreamcatcher volunteers like Debbie Durham say that working with the children is more valuable an experience for the volunteers than it is for the kids. Durham is a Washington, D.C. resident who works for Univision, a supporter of Camp Dreamcatcher. She has been volunteering at the camp for nearly 20 years, and said that it really helps to put life in perspective.
“It’s nice to be brought back to the things that are most important,” Durham explained. “It’s so much fun. When the week ends, you hate to see the kids go.”
Durham talked about how closely knit everyone is at the camp, and how the family atmosphere promotes trust between the counselors and campers.
“Everybody knows everybody,” Durham explained. “It’s amazing how quickly the kids can become so trusting and so honest. When the kids are here, they are all given the same opportunities.”
Hillkirk said that they’ve attempted to get some of the older campers—teenagers who are in the leaders-in-training program—to talk with the younger kids about their own experiences.
“We’re doing a lot more of having the leaders-in-training share their stories, their experiences, and challenges,” Hillkirk explained.
One of the most important benefits of the close relationships that the camp counselors form with the youngsters is that the children feel comfortable enough to open up and talk about their feelings.
At this year’s camp, there were 120 campers and another 250 or so staffers and volunteers, yet the absence of one person—Amber —was felt tremendously throughout the week. Amber passed away in January of this year at the age of j27 from health complications related to AIDS.
Her passing was a grim reminder of the challenges that people living with HIV or AIDS still face each day, even though a lot less attention is given to the disease nationally.
Amber was remembered at the camp for her big smile and even bigger heart. She loved to sing and perform. Levenberg had taken a lot of photos during her time as a camp counselor. Some of the photos were of Amber, and they were included on a memory wall that was set up so that campers could share their memories of their friend.
For Hillkirk, the longtime volunteers, and older campers it was very meaningful to have Mikayla at this year’s camp. The little girl who likes to swim and was enjoying meeting so many new friends is Amber’s daughter. She is staying in the same cabin that Amber stayed in so many years ago.
“Mikayla really looks so much like her mother,” Hillkirk said.
The fact that Camp Dreamcatcher is now serving the children of campers is another reminder for Hillkirk that, as hard as it might be to believe sometimes, Camp Dreamcatcher is heading into its 21st year. Wherever Hillkirk looked at this camp, there were reminders that Camp Dreamcatcher got its start in 1996, it is now 2016, and 21 eventful summers have passed between then and now. Some of the volunteers who are now in their mid-thirties were teenagers when they first helped out at camp. Miguel Correa, who was one of the youngest campers during the early years, is now a young adult who works as a counselor at camp. There have been five couples who have met at the camp, fallen in love, and gotten married. And the children of some of the original campers are now attending camp.
Twenty-one years ago, no one could have predicted that the candle that is Camp Dreamcatcher would burn so long and so bright.