At Camp Dreamcatcher, a circle of love that is unbreakable
● By Steven Hoffman
Camp Dreamcatcher begins with the children and the staff, the counselors, and the volunteers all gathered together in a tight circle—a continuous, unbroken chain that signifies that, here, everyone is a part of the whole. The camp ends the same way seven days later. Each summer for the last 23 years, new children have been stepping into the circle and making it bigger—and better—because they are now a part of it. When a child steps into the circle for the first time, he or she is surrounded by strangers. But those strangers soon turn into friends, and those friends turn into family.
More than 6,000 youngsters whose lives have been adversely affected by HIV or AIDS have received free therapeutic and educational programs from Kennett Square-based Camp Dreamcatcher since it was founded by executive director Patty Hillkirk in 1995. Each summer, a week-long summer camp takes place where children from throughout the Mid-Atlantic region enjoy the fun activities of a traditional summer camp—swimming, basketball, singing—but also benefit from various therapeutic programs, counseling services, friendship, and love. All the campers at Camp Dreamcatcher are HIV-positive themselves or have close family members who are battling the ailment.
This year, from Aug. 19 to 25, Camp Dreamcatcher welcomed 124 children between the ages of 5 and 17 and another 16 youngsters who advanced to serve as camp counselors at Camp Saginaw in Oxford. About 70 percent of the children come from Philadelphia and the surrounding counties, while other campers come from the surrounding states.
The children who attend the camp say that it offers a safe, supportive environment where they can share their concerns and fears with people who understand what they are going through.
“Camp, to me, is like coming together with your family,” explained Imani, one of the participants in the leaders-in-training program for teens. Imani and the other leaders-in-training members help work with the younger campers to make them feel comfortable as they adjust to the camp.
Kenneth also said that the camp makes the children feel very much at home as they get to spend time with their friends.
“You share activities, listen to music together, play dodge ball or basketball,” he explained.
Eden, another one of the leaders-in-training members, said that she feels like camp is a place where she can be herself.
Julian said, “The people in your cabin get to know you for who you really are. It’s a safe place. We’re free to get things off our chest, to relieve stress.”
“It’s almost like a giant bubble where you feel safe,” Karim added.
That's precisely what Hillkirk had in mind when she first envisioned what Camp Dreamcatcher could be in the mid-1990s. Her work in the HIV/AIDS community goes back to 1986, when she was a volunteer with the Red Cross and then a therapist with adults living with HIV/AIDS. She was inspired to start her own camp for children and teens infected by and coping with HIV/AIDS after watching a “60 Minutes” segment about just such a camp for children in New York state.
Hillkirk wanted to create a therapeutic and loving community to embrace children who had been impacted by the disease. She had trained with Mariah Fenton Gladis, the founder of the Pennsylvania Gestalt Center, for three years. When Hillkirk told Gladis about her vision for a camp, she was very supportive—and the mentor encouraged Hillkirk to pursue the dream.
“She trained me,” Hillkirk said, “and Camp Dreamcatcher is really based on what she taught us.”
In fact, the tradition of beginning and ending camp in a circle was inspired by Gladis.
Sadly, the circle at the beginning of this year's camp was missing two important people. Charlotte Bartlett, who was, like Gladis, instrumental in encouraging Hillkirk to create Camp Dreamcatcher more than 20 years ago, recently passed away. The camp now has a mindfulness center in the therapy room, which is called “Charlotte's Circle” in memory of Bartlett—it's a way to capture her spirit.
Similarly, there is now a space in the therapy room that is called “Mariah's Corner” in memory of Gladis, who passed away just last month. Gladis was the longest living survivor of ALS, and she courageously battled the disease ever since she was diagnosed in 1981, inspiring many others around her.
Hillkirk referred to Gladis as “a touchstone, friend, mentor, and colleague.”
It is fitting that both Bartlett and Gladis will be remembered at Camp Dreamcatcher where, once you're part of the extended family, you remain in that circle.
Hillkirk explained that songwriter John Flynn, a longtime supporter of the camp, wrote a song inspired by the children at Camp Dreamcatcher called “The Web and the Feather.” That song includes a lyric, “Many a child looked up and smiled here in the circle of love,” that perfectly captures Mariah's spirit.
The spirit of Gladis and Bartlett will certainly live on through Camp Dreamcatcher's work of helping youngsters.
The children who attend Camp Dreamcatcher face many challenges today, from more routine situations like breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend or having a difficult time in school to dealing with significant health issues—their own or those of a family member. They often must contend with community violence or poverty. At camp, the children talk about dealing with HIV and AIDS with the counselors and the staff, but they are also able to share details about many other issues that affect their daily lives.
The Camp Dreamcatcher team presents a variety of therapeutic and counseling sessions throughout the week 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.
More than 230 volunteers, including medical personnel, professionals and community members are on hand to make sure that the children receive the guidance that they need.
Bullying is a topic that often comes up, especially now that younger and younger children have access to social media.
“We talk about bullying a lot,” Hillkirk explained. “We also talk about accountability, and about how, if you hurt someone, you have to feel sorry and be accountable.”
The children can often feel isolated, especially if they are unable to talk about HIV with their family members or friends.
“We hear that from a lot of the kids—they will say that, ‘In my family, I can’t talk about it.’ HIV is still a secret for them,” Hillkirk said.
They challenge the children, especially the teens, to try to be open and honest about the impact that HIV or AIDS has had on their lives—and to turn it into something positive.
Dealing with health fears is something else that many of the campers are facing. There have been numerous advances in HIV and AIDS treatments since the mid-1990s, but it is still a difficult medical issue to cope with, especially for youngsters. Many of the children have lost family members or friends, and they need help dealing with their grief.
A wish log ceremony is one of the most emotional parts of the week at Camp Dreamcatcher. Children share their thoughts, feelings, and concerns during this time. They can dedicate their wishes to a loved one who is suffering, or wish for better health for themselves. This year's wish log ceremony included a special bundle that was created in memory of Gladis, as well as a bundle that was created in memory of Brealey, a beloved therapeutic dog who passed away in April. Having others around to share their feelings with, and to share their fears with, is invaluable for the youngsters. It can be very therapeutic to get the feelings and fears out into the open.
The impact of the camp is undeniable. While Camp Dreamcatcher started out as a one-week summer camp, the services have been expanded through the years to better meet the needs of the children. Programs include an educational camp session, weekend retreats, camper reunion events, a mentoring program, a holiday Adopt-a-Family program and a Teen Speaker’s Bureau. Hillkirk hears all the time about how important the various programs are to the children. That’s why she has devoted her professional working life to this camp.
As Miracle, one of the leaders-in-training members explained, “Camp means the world to me. It’s a safe place where I can express myself.”
Miracle has been coming to camp for the last five years. said that her favorite part of camp is working with the younger kids. Passing along knowledge and supporting others are invaluable aspects of camp—as the children age, they take on leadership roles and become mentors to the younger kids, in the same way that older kids were once mentors to them.
Miguel Correa was one of the first children to take part in Camp Dreamcatcher back in the mid-1990s, and he has been coming to camp ever since. He graduated to being a camp counselor, and is now a village chief at the camp, helping all the other campers get acclimated so that they can get the most out of the experience.
It is not uncommon for the campers to forge strong friendships and return year after year so that they can spend time with their friends.
For teens like Idah, the favorite part about Camp Dreamcatcher is the summer fun aspect of it—the swimming, the games, the visits with friends. She has been coming to the camp for the last six years.
Others enjoy the summer activities, but they also look forward to being able to talk with others about issues that they are facing—while also knowing that they won’t be judged.
“This is a special place to be yourself,” said Leah, one of the members of the leaders-in-training program. She has been coming to camp for the last 10 years, and always looks forward to being with her friends in the cabin. Get more than 140 children together in one camp, and there's bound to be plenty of excitement.
“At Camp Dreamcatcher,” Leah explained, “you expect the unexpected. You never know what is going to happen.”
Expecting the unexpected is certainly something that Hillkirk has grown accustomed to through the years.
Often, the unexpected can be something good. Sometimes, it's not.
Case in point: Just days before this year’s camp got underway, there was an unexpected setback: a garage in Kennett Square where supplies for the camp week were boxed up and organized for the kids was flooded with more than three feet of water when a sewage grate got blocked with debris during a storm with heavy rains.
The supplies included blankets, pillows, rain gear, flashlights, batteries, crafts—all things that were badly needed for the camp week.
Hillkirk estimated that about $9,000 worth of supplies were ruined in the flood.
The true impact wasn't felt until the kids started arriving at camp they didn't have the supplies that had been lined up for them.
After 23 years, the good work of Camp Dreamcatcher is known and understood by a lot of people in the local community, so when a special need arises there are people willing to help.
“I posted about losing the supplies on Facebook and people just started responding,” Hillkirk said, explaining that one friend from Philadelphia drove in with 20 blankets for the youngsters. Another person volunteered to wash and dry some of the clothing that had been damaged in the flood.
Overall, Hillkirk said, donations totaling about $4,000 and some new supplies were dropped within a few days, at least partially offsetting the damage that had been done. Resilience in the face of challenges like this can also serve as a lesson for the youngsters at Camp Dreamcatcher.
In Camp Dreamcatcher's 23-year saga so far, for each time a heavy rainstorm that has dampened spirits, there has certainly been a long stretch of sunny, summer days to bolster everyone's fortitude.
One example from this year's camp is Dorrie's Camp Store, a new addition in 2018. Within the last year, a woman in Connecticut who runs a thrift shop just started sending Camp Dreamcatcher box after box of great items for children—games, books, toys, school supplies, clothing. The woman even reached out to Hillkirk to see what specific sizes of clothing were needed for the children. When Hillkirk realized how many items the woman was sending, Camp Dreamcatcher set up a program where the children can earn tickets during camp that they can then spend at what is being called Dorrie's Camp Store.
Camp Dreamcatcher has been the recipient of many such wonderful acts of kindness through the years.
The personal relationships that have formed are what is most special. A camp session never passes, Hillkirk explained, when a person who previously volunteered at the camp comes back 5, 10, or even 15 years later and they meet up with all their old friends. Some of the campers might take a year or two off, but then they return because of the tug of friendship and love at Camp Dreamcatcher. It goes on and on, one big, growing circle of love.
Random acts of kindness are rampant at Camp Dreamcatcher
By Steven Hoffman
Camp Dreamcatcher’s organizers plan a wide variety of programs and activies that offer therapeutic or educational benefits for youngsters—everything from equine-assisted mindfulness programs to massage therapy to yoga to music therapy.
While these therapeutic programs at Camp Dreamcatcher are vital, sometimes what it takes to make a child smile is a simple act of kindness.
At this year's camp, about 15 students who are in the leadership-in-training program adopted new identities as Secret Agents of Kindness—and then they set out to make a child smile by doing something nice.
Secret Agent Renaissance, for example, would clean up the tables at lunch for youngsters. Secret Agent Avocado set out water and napkins before lunch, and she wrote some nice notes to some of the children. Secret Agent Boom Boom said that it was her goal to compliment others.
“If I see someone who is looking sad, I talk to them and say something nice,” she explained.
Throughout the camp week, these random acts of kindness lifted spirits and illustrated the importance of helping others.