Making a difference in children’s lives
● By Steven Hoffman
Anyone who has ever visited one of Camp Dreamcatcher’s camp weeks knows to expect the unexpected.
Last Thursday afternoon was sunny and muggy—a typical late-August day that is meant for children to be outside playing.
And the sprawling grounds at Camp Saginaw in Oxford certainly offer plenty of opportunities for outdoor fun—there are go-karts, a basketball court, a zip-line, and a pool, to name just a few of them.
But the camp, despite the presence of hundreds of energetic people, had fallen oddly silent in the middle of the afternoon. Instead of being outside enjoying those aforementioned activities, more than two dozen youngsters were gathered into the camp’s health center to receive an eye exam. The kids were excited—bouncing-off-the-walls excited—as they waited for Dr. Michael Miller to administer the eye exams.
You wouldn’t expect children at a summer camp to get an eye exam, but Camp Dreamcatcher is no ordinary camp. For the last 24 years, the Kennett Square-based organization has been a positive force in the lives of youngsters who have been impacted by HIV or AIDS through a variety of year-round therapeutic and educational programs.
While there are a few other camps on the East Coast that serve children who have been impacted by HIV and AIDS, most do not offer the therapeutic support that is at the heart of Camp Dreamcatcher.
“That’s what makes us unique,” explained Patty Hillkirk, the founder and executive director of the camp.
It was Hillkirk who first envisioned a camp for children who were dealing with the enormous challenges that come with a life that has been impacted by HIV or AIDS. Hillkirk knew that the children could benefit from counseling and therapy. 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. From the very beginning, Camp Dreamcatcher focused not only on HIV and AIDS, and the need for each child to maintain a healthy lifestyle that included taking all the necessary medications, but also on all the other issues that the children might face in their lives—bullying, peer pressure, loneliness, poverty, and grief.
All the programs and services at the camp are free to the children, which was one of the guiding principles when Hillkirk started Camp Dreamcatcher nearly 24 years ago. This year's camp took place from Aug. 18 to Aug. 24, and there were approximately 120 children from ages 5 to 17 who took part in the activities.
There are certainly many elements of the camp that are fun—the kids ride the go-karts, play basketball, and splash around in the pool. But there are also a wide variety of therapeutic programs aimed at helping the children overcome their challenges, whatever they are, and mature into happy, productive adults.
During camp, children can take part in therapy sessions with highly trained therapists and talk about their concerns and fears. Some of the children have significant health concerns themselves, or they have loved ones who are struggling with HIV or AIDS. There are also common, real-world issues like bullying, community violence, poverty, or the need for proper nutrition and health that they might be dealing with. At Camp Dreamcatcher, the kids never have to face anything alone.
Hillkirk and the large team of volunteers will provide support to the children utilizing every resource available to them. This year, the children enjoyed yoga, massages, music therapy, equine therapy, and many more programs to help them make the most of their time at camp. There were even information sessions offering the older children advice on budgeting and tips on how to apply for college. If the children could benefit from a program or service, Camp Dreamcatcher tries to make it a reality.
That’s how the children came to be lining up for eye exams on a sunny, humid afternoon one day last week.
Miller’s willingness and ability to offer a valuable service to the children illustrates how Camp Dreamcatcher’s reach continues to grow year after year.
Miller, who recently completed his residency in Boston, was still a student at West Chester University and undecided about a career path when he first volunteered at Camp Dreamcatcher. Working with the children at camp helped him to decide to become an eye doctor. He has now volunteered at the camp four different times.
“I volunteered here and fell in love with the camp,” Miller explained while he took a break from administering eye exams to the kids.
Falling in love with the camp is a familiar story—many of the volunteers do just that because working with the children is such a rewarding experience.
Miller was motivated to help the children in any way that he could, and he was able to work with Boston College, MIT, the New England College of Optometry, and the Essilor Vision Foundation to get enough eyeglasses for all the children at camp who need them. He also used a piece of equipment that was made available to him by Plen Optika that allowed him to do full eye exams on the youngsters. In the first 70 eye exams that Miller performed, approximately 30 children needed glasses.
Hillkirk expressed her gratitude for the generous donation of the eyeglasses, as well as Miller’s willingness to conduct all the eye exams.
“For our kids, this is life-changing,” Hillkirk said. She explained that many of the youngsters at camp aren’t able to receive regular eye exams, and can’t get the eyeglasses that they need to read, do their schoolwork, or to play sports. Having worked with many children through the years, she knows that not being able to see properly can affect a child’s development greatly.
“When their vision is impaired, that can impact their behavior,” she said.
Being able to provide eye exams and eyeglasses was a new addition at this year’s camp, but there’s nothing unusual about something new being added—Camp Dreamcatcher has continually evolved through the years to respond to the changing needs of the children.
For example, the maximum age for children to attend the camp has been increased over time. Children must still be at least five years old to participate. The camp now includes separate programs for younger campers (between the ages of 5 and 11), older campers (ages 12 and 13), teen campers (ages 14 and 15), counselors in training and leaders in training (age 16), and junior counselors (age 17). There are even young adults who keep coming back to camp to help the younger kids.
Approximately 6,000 youngsters, primarily from the Mid-Atlantic region, have benefited from the programs and services of Camp Dreamcatcher through the years. Anyone who has spent time at the camp understands that it is really one big, growing family. Many of the children return year after year to spend time with their friends. Camp is something that they look forward to. For the volunteers, it works the same way. Miller, for example, started out as a volunteer and found the camp to be so inspiring that now, as a professional, he’s coming back to provide an invaluable service to the youngsters.
One of the highlights of this year’s camp was a carnival that was put together by more than 50 volunteers from PayPal. The carnival included plenty of games, and carnival favorites like cotton candy, popcorn, and snow cones.
Doug Bland works for PayPal and helped organize the group of volunteers at this year’s camp. He said that being able to help the children made it a very worthy volunteer opportunity.
“The impact this camp has on the lives of the young people is truly inspiring and we are fortunate to be able to donate time and resources to such a special purpose,” Bland said. “Patty and her team are doing incredible work in the world and making a meaningful difference to the lives of children that are living with significant challenges. Chester County should be proud of this local organization.”
Bland added that PayPal, which has offices in Wilmington and Conshohocken, encourages employees to volunteer, and that volunteerism aligns with the mission of creating inclusive economic opportunities for as many people and businesses as possible.
Bland explained that the approximately 400 local PayPal employees are highly engaged in the communities in the greater Philadelphia area, and they support many charitable organizations.
“Camp Dreamcatcher is one of these organizations and we receive great support from our team because of the purpose of Patty’s organization,” Bland said. “This year, we had over 60 people spend time volunteering at the camp and doing everything from arts and crafts to carnival activities to fishing. We always receive positive feedback from our team about the experience, and the kids you get to meet are truly amazing and inspiring. We plan to continue to support the camp for years to come and challenge ourselves on how we can deliver better experiences for the campers each year.”
At Camp Dreamcatcher, it takes a village to make sure that each child is cared for and receiving the maximum benefit from the programming.
Hillkirk herself has worked with at-risk youth for more than 30 years. After graduating from Penn State University, she was trained for three years at the Pennsylvania Gestalt Center. Her mentor was Mariah Gladis, who was the founder and director of the Pennsylvania Gestalt Center for Psychotherapy and Training for more than three decades. Gladis was very instrumental in helping Hillkirk establish Camp Dreamcatcher in the mid-1990s. She also led workshops and trainings around the U.S. and in Europe. She passed away last year, but not before leaving an indelible mark on the world.
At his year’s camp, Hillkirk enlisted the help of Cameron Armstrong, a therapist based in Utah who traveled across country to spend the latter part of the week at Camp Dreamcatcher. Like Hillkirk, he considers Gladis to be an important mentor. He was very impressed and inspired by what he saw at Camp Dreamcatcher.
“It’s been awesome,” Armstrong explained. “I love seeing kids being kids, and these kids don’t always get to be kids because of the challenges that they are facing.”
The programs at Camp Dreamcatcher are always being changed based on feedback from the volunteers and campers themselves. This year, they extended the wilderness program from one day to two days. As part of the wilderness program, the 15-year-olds in the camp spend time together as a group in the woods—about a mile and a half from the regular part of the camp. For many of the children who grow up in the city, the wilderness program offers them a chance to see the stars and to have a place of quiet contemplation.
“It’s so peaceful up there. It feels like a different world,” Hillkirk explained.
Under the supervision of several counselors, the 15-year-olds—this year there were nine of them—can reflect on their past experiences at camp and contemplate their future roles as leaders at the camp. It’s an opportunity to discuss their thoughts and feelings. At this age, children are typically going through many transitions.
Deasia and Karen were two of the campers who took part in the wilderness program this year. They both said that they liked the program, and that they look forward to taking on leadership roles at the camp in the future.
The younger kids at camp know very little about the wilderness program—the first year that the program was held, the fifteen-year-olds decided on their own to keep information about it to themselves, and that tradition has continued.
For Hillkirk, it’s very gratifying to hear that Karen and Deasia found something beneficial in the wilderness program or to see the children receive eye exams and eyeglasses.
It’s also gratifying to see so many dedicated volunteers at the camp. Each year, trained medical professionals, therapists, and local volunteers share of their time and talents at the camp.
Shortly after Hillkirk left the health center where the eye exams were taking place, she ran into Holly, a longtime volunteer who showed up unexpectedly this year to help out. Holly moved to Maine, but couldn’t stay away. The pull of Camp Dreamcatcher is too strong. Another volunteer came in from China to help out at camp.
Hillkirk estimates that about 70 percent of the counselors have been helping out at camp between 10 and 23 years. Many of the volunteers are on their 17th, 18th, or 19th year at the camp, Hillkirk said. Then there are the volunteers from PayPal who show up as a group and put on a carnival. And Cameron Armstrong traveling across country to provide therapy to the children. And the children all lined up for an eye exam by Miller.
“It’s very heartwarming,” Hillkirk said, smiling.