Love is medicine at Camp Dreamcatcher
By Steven Hoffman
Love is medicine.
The short but powerful message was written on a Post-It note and placed among dozens of other positive messages on a special board that was set up at Camp Dreamcatcher this year. According to Patty Hillkirk, the founder and executive director of the organization, the board of favorable notes was a small way to encourage the 122 children who attended this year's camp, which took place at Camp Saginaw in Oxford from Aug. 19 to 26. There is a lot of turmoil and negativity in the world, but at Camp Dreamcatcher, more than 230 volunteers, medical personnel, professionals, and community members work to ensure that the camp is an oasis of safety amid all the turmoil and negativity. So positive messages? Yes, they will be posted.
Love is medicine.
Hillkirk, a trained psychotherapist, founded Camp Dreamcatcher in 1995 to help children who were either HIV-positive themselves or who had close family members who were HIV-positive. Children who find themselves in these circumstances are often afraid, sad, or angry. They can face other issues, too, like bullying, community violence, and poverty. Hillkirk wanted to create a camp that offered a safe, supportive, and nurturing environment where children could express their feelings of fear, sadness, and anger. So for each of the last 22 summers, children from throughout the Mid-Atlantic region have come together for this unique, week-long camp that blends the fun and friendships of a traditional summer camp with a variety of therapeutic and educational programs aimed at helping the children overcome their challenges and mature into happy, productive adults.
Many of the children at camp come back year after year to see their friends. The counselors and leaders-in-training at the camp stay in touch with the youngsters throughout the year, offering support and friendship. The camp has grown into one, big extended family.
“Camp always feels like home,” said Karim, 15, who is looking to transition from being a camper to being one of the leaders-in-training. “Everybody is family here. We look at each other as brothers and sisters.”
That's no exaggeration. As one of the older campers, Karim said that he takes it upon himself to work with the younger children at camp so that they learn that it's important to help each other—the way that an older sibling might work with a younger sibling. The camp offers plenty of time for children to bond with their counselors and with each other, and those bonds are strengthened year after year.
Taj Brown, a camp counselor, said that Karim is a phenomenal influence on the young campers. He helps demonstrate the leadership and respect that establishes the expectations for behavior at camp.
While children are children and there will be a few squabbles now and then, there is serious work going on at Camp Dreamcatcher as Hillkirk and the team plan and present dozens of different programs and activities that are focused on providing therapy and counseling to the children. Serious issues are addressed, including bullying, community violence, the need for proper nutrition and health, and the importance of making good life choices.
In some important ways, the lives of youngsters diagnosed with AIDS are much better than they were more than two decades ago when Camp Dreamcatcher was started. Back then, 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 since then, 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. But when it comes to things like discrimination, bullying, and isolation, many of the challenges that were present 20 years ago still exist. This becomes evident to the counselors when they talk to the children about their daily struggles.
In order for children to open up about the issues that they are facing, they have to feel like they are in a safe environment. Often, the children need to feel a little love—it is, after all, medicine—and if that doesn't work then all they need is a bigger dose.
Patty Hewson said that it was the wonderful care and support that the children receive that led her to make a commitment to the Camp Dreamcatcher family. Hewson, a nurse practitioner with more than 30 years of experience, said that she had worked with children with HIV or AIDS in other countries before visiting Camp Dreamcatcher for the first time a decade ago.
“I was involved in HIV internationally, but I wasn’t doing anything locally,” Hewson explained. “Then I came to Camp Dreamcatcher one year and fell in love. I thought it was the coolest thing ever what they were doing for the kids. This camp is a safe place for kids to talk about HIV and AIDS. I knew these kids weren’t able to talk about it with their friends.”
Hewson has been the part-time Health Center Director for Camp Dreamcatcher since 2008, overseeing about 25 medical volunteers during the camp. This volunteer team includes registered nurses, nurse practitioners, EMTs, and nursing students. The medical team is vigilant about ensuring that all the campers take their medicine as prescribed, and they also tend to the routine headaches, bumps, and scrapes that will occur when you put more than 120 children in close proximity with each other.
Mary Ann Knott-Grasso is a nurse practitioner at Johns Hopkins who started volunteering at Camp Dreamcatcher about eight years ago after some of her pediatric HIV patients or their siblings benefited from the camp.
Knott-Grasso said that she sees real value in children being able to come together to talk about the challenges that they might be facing. She noted that HIPPA regulations prevents medical professionals from connecting children and families who might be facing similar issues, but at Camp Dreamcatcher there are lots of opportunities for children to share their feelings with counselors or each other.
“They know that they are totally safe here,” she said.
As a medical professional, Knott-Grasso noted, it's nice to see children in a camp setting because it's so different from the hospital environment. It's an opportunity to gain fresh insights into the children's lives, and how they are feeling. She added that many of the medical professionals who volunteer at Camp Dreamcatcher consider it to be a good learning experience.
Knott-Grasso grew up loving regular visits to summer camps herself, and she really likes the idea that these kids whose lives had been impacted by HIV or AIDS would be able to enjoy the experiences of being in a camp.
“We look forward to camp,” she said.
Hewson agreed. She pointed out that a large number of volunteers are believers in the mission of Camp Dreamcatcher, and are willing to help out year after year. Hewson said that the dedication of the other volunteers motivates her.
“I want to be around these amazing people who get involved with taking on HIV—it’s good to be around them,” Hewson explained.
Hillkirk and the team of Camp Dreamcatcher organizers plan a wide variety of programs and activities that offer therapeutic or educational benefits for the youngsters. This year, one of the new additions was an equine-assisted mindfulness program. Standing Hope Equine Therapy, which is based in Chester Springs, Pa., conducted 20 sessions over the five days that they had horses at the camp, giving children the opportunity to interact with the animals. The children were able to brush the horses, and they were supposed to be mindful of their breathing while they did it.
The youngsters at Camp Dreamcatcher found the activity to be very beneficial.
“I thought it was wonderful,” said Nelly, 11. “The horse liked it when I brushed him.”
“It was a lot of fun,” agreed Samiya, a ten-year-old who was at the camp for the third time.
“I thought the horses were awesome,” said Layla, 11, referring to Zippo and Durango, two of the horses from Standing Hope Equine Therapy.
Jess Timlin, an equine specialist with the company who supervised the children during the session, said that people suffering from everything from anxiety to eating disorders to autism to learning disorders can benefit from equine therapy.
Joanne Campbell, a psychotherapist with Standing Hope Equine Therapy, said that this form of therapy can help people, especially children, develop positive communication and emotional regulation.
Timlin added that equine therapy can boost a person’s self-esteem and help them to build their confidence.
“The campers’ ability to connect has really exceeded my expectations,” Campbell said.
Timlin added that the children were engaged during the equine therapy sessions and they were very good with the horses.
“It’s really been a lot of fun,” she said.
The equine therapy was a favorite activity this year for Ohnmar, a 13-year-old camper. Ohnmar, whose family resides in Baltimore, said that she looks forward to camp every year because it's an opportunity to see her friends and because it's a chance to talk to people who understand the issues that she's dealing with.
“At camp, you can talk about things if you’re down,” she said.
One of the most emotional aspects of camp each year is the wish log ceremony where campers can make wishes and share about the trials that they are going through at home. Ohnmar said that the wish log ceremony is one of the more meaningful parts of the Camp Dreamcatcher experience.
“You have to go through the obstacles,” Ohnmar said. “It’s like the game of 'Life.'”
In life, sometimes things come full circle. After 21 years, there are all kinds of illustrations of that at Camp Dreamcatcher. This year, one of the youngest campers at camp was Emma Wagner. One of the camp counselors realized that Emma's mother, Jaclinn, had been at the camp a generation ago. Debbie Dunham, one of the volunteers at Camp Dreamcatcher, was able to take Emma to a teepee tent where Jaclinn had traced her hand at some point around 1997. Now, Emma's own hand print is next to her mother's, another link in an ever-expanding Camp Dreamcatcher chain.
For Hillkirk, who has a personal relationship with most, if not all the campers, it's always emotional to start to form bonds with the youngest children at Camp Dreamcatcher. She said that the level of knowledge and understanding of HIV and AIDS in the youngest campers is always amazing to her. She was also impressed by how open some of the returning campers are about the disease. Even so, the camp is very necessary—this year there was one 12-year-old, in particular, who started the week very uncomfortable about sharing any of his feelings or concerns. But by the fifth day, he had opened up and was sharing his feelings. That's the real impact of Camp Dreamcatcher.
Hillkirk said that the word that the board of directors keeps coming back to again and again when they talk about the organization's mission is “safety.”
“Camp is their safe place,” Hillkirk said. “We’ve created a week where they feel safe—safe to open up, safe to share their feelings.”
Many of the children come from communities that are stricken with poverty and violence. In at least one case this year, a child attending camp is currently homeless.
“We’re working hard to find therapists and identifying supports that are available,” Hillkirk said. “It’s ongoing work to make sure that the kids have what they need.”
Ken Pienkos, a professor at Antioch University Los Angeles who previously served as the director of the Oxford Library, flew across the country to conduct a two-day writing program for the campers this year. He offered the children some writing prompts and encouraged them to explore their thoughts and feelings through their writing.
He shared with the campers several pieces of writing, including Maya Angelou's powerful poem, “Caged Bird,” which reads, in part:
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom
Pienkos said that if the children can learn to speak out and share their feelings with others, it will help encourage common understanding and tolerance from people who hear their stories. The plan, Pienkos said, is to work with the children and quilt together the stories that they tell into a spoken word performance piece that they will stage during a Camp Dreamcatcher event in 2018.
“I’m hoping that writing helps them identify their voices,” he said. “Any binding or restriction, any cage, is a reason to sing out.”