Camp Dreamcatcher at 25:
By Steven Hoffman
In the beginning, there was hope.
When Patty Hillkirk took the first steps toward establishing a camp for youngsters who are affected by HIV or AIDS, she hoped to be able to make a difference in their lives, and she also wanted the camp to provide hope to the children that a brighter future was waiting for them.
Hillkirk, a psychotherapist who graduated from Penn State University and trained at the Pennsylvania Gestalt Center, envisioned a camp that would that would offer much more than a fun, outdoor experience. She wanted the children to have a safe, supportive environment where they could share their feelings of fear, sadness, and anger and begin the process of healing and learn how to cope with the enormous challenges that come with living with HIV or AIDS.
In those days, a child who had been diagnosed with the deadly disease would face significant health issues and they could only expect to live to their teenage years. The children of parents who had HIV often suffered greatly, too, dealing with feelings of isolation and loss. They were targets for bullying and discrimination. Many lived in poverty and lacked food and steady shelter. Some experienced community violence and were victims of abuse. These were the children that Hillkirk wanted to help when she established a nonprofit organization in January of 1996. The first week-long camp took place later that same year, and while there were other camps on the East Coast that served children who had been impacted by HIV and AIDS, what distinguished Camp Dreamcatcher from the very start was the emphasis on the counseling and therapeutic support.
“That’s really what makes us unique,” Hillkirk said during a recent interview. She explained that, from the very beginning, Camp Dreamcatcher focused not only on helping each child live with HIV and AIDS, but on addressing issues like bullying, peer pressure, loneliness, poverty, and grief.
When children from throughout the Mid-Atlantic region gather for Camp Dreamcatcher from Aug. 23 to 29 this year, it will mark the 25th camp, a milestone that offers an opportunity to both look back on the impact that Camp Dreamcatcher has had and to look ahead to the work that remains to be done.
‘‘I can't imagine the person I’d be without it’
Miguel Correa has grown up right in front of Hillkirk and some of the longtime volunteers and counselors at Camp Dreamcatcher.
He was among the youngest campers when he first attended Camp Dreamcatcher during its earliest years in the mid-1990s. Correa has been coming to camp ever since. He was among the first group of campers to take part in the leadership-in-training program that was developed specifically to allow campers to take on leadership roles when they reached a certain age. Correa has served as a camp counselor, helping all the younger campers get acclimated so that they can get the most out of the Camp Dreamcatcher experience.
Twenty-five years ago, Hillkirk never thought that the youngest campers would grow up and become counselors themselves one day. But individuals like Correa pushed the boundaries of what was possible.
“We see kids move into maturity here,” Hillkirk said of the older teens who become camp counselors. “They can bring something to that role of camp counselor that none of us can bring. That’s been special to see.”
Correa was so young when he first took part in Camp Dreamcatcher that he doesn’t remember the first few trips to the camp. One of Correa’s earliest memories at Camp Dreamcatcher came when he was 8 or 9 and the children took a trip to Washington, D.C. and got to visit the White House. What stands out about that year, Correa recalled, was not just a fun trip to the nation’s capital, but a storm with lightning, thunder, and heavy rains that came in the night before the trip. He remembered that one of the counselors went out in the storm to secure all the flaps on the tarps so the children wouldn’t get wet. Correa still remembers that act of protection to this day. He also remembers the generosity of counselors at the camp. Once, around the same time that the trip to Washington, D.C. took place, one of the counselors gave him a VHS copy of “Star Wars: A New Hope.” He’s still a big fan of Star Wars, and he still has the VHS tape, another illustration of how small gestures of kindness can mean so much to others. It’s one of the many lessons that Correa has learned at Camp Dreamcatcher.
The camp helped him process the grief that he felt after losing both his parents at a young age.
“Camp impacted my life so much that I can't imagine the person I’d be without it,” he explained. “It gave me the tools to feel comfortable in my own body, it gave my problem-solving skills, it allowed me to be able to understand many points of view and love those who don't see the world as I do. Camp is my soul, and for many years that’s all I had.”
As one of the youngest campers during those early years, Correa knows Camp Dreamcatcher about as well as anyone. He believes that the biggest change that he has seen is how the camp continued to evolve to meet the needs of the children. While the week-long camp remains a focal point of Camp Dreamcatcher, there are now year-round initiatives, including leadership-in-training sessions, weekend retreats for teens, an adopt-a-family program at Christmas, and a mentoring program that pairs younger children with an older camper or counselor. These activities, which are all free to participants, take place throughout the year even though camp officials and the children are scattered throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, and Virginia.
During the course of 25 years, approximately 5,600 people have benefited from the variety of life-changing programs now offered.
Just as Hillkirk couldn’t have envisioned a time when campers would grow up to be counselors, she also did not think that what started out as a one-week camp would evolve into a series of programs that are aimed at helping the children grow into being healthy, productive adults.
Finding Camp Dreamcatcher
Robin Hope, a resident of Vineland, New Jersey, can still remember how she felt when she found out about Camp Dreamcatcher, and the programs that it offered to children.
Today, Hope’s children are, like Correa, grown adults. But the children were still very young when Hope started serving as a foster parent.
Hope explained, “When they were little, I was preparing myself. I was reading books so that I could help teach them how to live with the virus.”
Hope remembered being very concerned about the social impact the disease would have on the children’s lives. At the time, people misunderstood a lot about HIV—and there was a lot of misinformation being spread by people who didn’t understand HIV and AIDS. At that time, there was a real stigma attached to anyone who was HIV-positive. Some children were being told by adults that they couldn’t touch or even shake hands with a child who was HIV-positive.
“My kids felt like they did something wrong,” Hope explained. “And they were completely innocent. They were just children.”
When she found Camp Dreamcatcher, Hope said, she was extremely pleased that such a camp existed for her children. It was a little hard letting the kids go away without her for a week, but she knew they were safe at Camp Dreamcatcher.
“I was scared to death because I had never been separated from them before,” Hope explained. “Camp Dreamcatcher was their place of freedom. For that week, they were free to be exactly how they are. They could share their stories. They could be around other children that they could share their feelings with. They didn’t have to keep secrets.”
The village chiefs and counselors play a pivotal role in helping the children to open up about how they feel. They work very closely with the children during the camp week.
Hillkirk explained that a lot of the children, especially the younger ones, have anxiety or they have experienced trauma in their young lives. They can be the victims of bullying or have loved ones who are experiencing significant health issues and are scared.
“Often, these issues are first diagnosed at camp,” Hillkirk explained.
One aspect of camp is certainly the summer fun—the go-kart rides, the basketball, the special programs presented by an army of volunteers who show up to entertain and educate the children. But there are also a wide variety of therapeutic programs aimed at helping the children overcome their challenges and mature into happy, productive adults.
Camp Dreamcatcher has increased the number of trained therapists at camp so that they can provide more assistance to the youngsters who need it. Hillkirk and the Camp Dreamcatcher volunteers can also help connect the families of youngsters to resources in their own communities. That’s one way that Camp Dreamcatcher has grown beyond just a one-week camp. Real connections are formed between the counselors and the campers, and the adults are always there to help the children out whenever they need it.
Raynetta Adams, a senior counselor who has been volunteering with Camp Dreamcatcher for more than 20 years, said that it has been an amazing experience watching the children grow as they come to camp year after year. She said that it’s a common occurrence for one of the kids that she has gotten to know to reach out for some sort of help or advice with a problem that they might be dealing with.
“Sometimes, they will want to talk on a regular basis, but other times it’s just when they need a life raft,” Adams explained.
She recalled a recent time when, two or three months after a teen retreat, she got a telephone call from one of the teen boys who needed to talk to someone after a member of the extended family had been killed. It took some time for the boy to open up to her about the tragedy, but eventually he did. Adams, who is affectionately called “Rae Rae” by the campers and counselors, said that it is always gratifying to be able to help a child in need. That spirit of helping and supporting others is prevalent at Camp Dreamcatcher.
Adams explained, “There’s something about spending time with the children and forming these bonds with them. It just touches a special place in my heart. When the kids come to camp, they know that they are safe. They also know that when someone says ‘I love you’ that is what is meant. For that one week, they are safe. There are no secrets that they have to keep here.” She paused, and then added, “It’s just pure joy and love at Camp Dreamcatcher.”
Big Al teaches the kids to pay it forward
Allan R. Torres is the CEO of Pena & Kahn, a law firm in New York, as well as an owner of two restaurants and several martial arts studios. He is an extremely busy person yet, each year, he makes time to come to camp and is also there to help the kids when they reach out to him. Torres has been volunteering at Camp Dreamcatcher for the last 18 years, and he’s now a senior counselor and helps train some of the other counselors.
“Camp is very powerful,” Torres said. “The connection with the kids is like nothing that you could imagine. I never knew that one organization could be so impactful on a person’s life.”
Torres, who is known to campers as “Big Al,” teaches an enormously popular martial arts class at camp. The class focuses on self-defense techniques and making children more aware of their surroundings and the circumstances that children might find themselves in.
Torres said that volunteering at the camp is a life-changing experience. He has brought a number of people with him to camp through the years, and they all say the same thing.
Torres is one of those people who has a natural connection with youngsters, which makes him a natural mentor, especially to teens who are often looking for guidance to help figure out the world around them.
“When I talk about camp, I can get choked up,” he said. “The kids, all they want is a chance. They want to be seen. They want to be heard.”
Torres explained that one camper invited him to graduation and said that he helped him reach that milestone in his life. Another camper wrote a letter saying that Torres was like a father to him. He recalled a time when he was unable to be there when one of the teen campers celebrated going to the prom. To make up for his absence, Torres sent along a corsage and some money so that the girl could get her hair done before the prom. It was an opportunity to make her feel special. Torres encouraged the girl to pay it forward and help make someone else feel special one day.
He loves seeing the children grow into responsible adults who go to college, get a job, start families, and lead productive lives. One of the campers who was introduced to martial arts by one of Torres’ classes at Camp Dreamcatcher has gone on become a black belt with an advanced degree.
While many youngsters see a benefit from what Torres teaches them, the martial arts instructor insists that the benefits are more than reciprocated as the youngsters make a huge difference in his own life.
‘It’s like a circle of love’
Counselors and campers alike describe Camp Dreamcatcher as one, big extended family. Jenn Brown joined the family in 1999, when she volunteered for the first time at camp while she was still a student in high school. She went to the library in Kennett Square one day and saw a flyer about Camp Dreamcatcher. Once she volunteered and got the experience of working with the children at the camp, Brown was hooked—like so many people are.
Brown’s professional background is in working with international nonprofits, and life has taken her many places during the intervening 20 years since she first volunteered at camp, but the pull of Camp Dreamcatcher is strong.
“I live in California now,” she said, “but I come back every year that I can.” She explained that she has been able to help out at the camp for at least the last five years in a row, serving as a village chief.
Even when she lived overseas for a period of time, she would try to plan family visits around the camp week so that she could still volunteer.
“The biggest thing for me is how much the kids love it,” Brown explained. “They just love it so much. It’s a wonderful atmosphere of love and acceptance.”
Brown even got her parents, Richard Brown and Barbara Stewart, to help volunteer at camp.
“Everyone in the family just loves the camp,” she said.
Hillkirk estimates that about 70 percent of the counselors have been helping out at camp between 10 and 23 years. She said that there are many dedicated volunteers who are willing to travel to help out with camp, including trained medical professionals who staff the health center, an essential component of the camp.
“We have counselors who live in Florida, Chicago, California,” Hillkirk explained. “Something happens when they volunteer at Camp Dreamcatcher. Many of these volunteers will change their schedules, they will plan their lives around camp.”
The reason is simple: Camp Dreamcatcher has grown into one, big family.
That family includes the army of volunteers who help make each camp a possibility.
“We wouldn’t be able to meet the needs of the kids without the volunteers,” Hillkirk said.
The Camp Dreamcatcher family also includes the many companies, organizations, foundations and individuals who provide financial assistance, which is critically important since all the programs are free to the children. These contributors also help spread the word about Camp Dreamcatcher’s work.
“The Kennett Square community, the southern Chester County community, is phenomenal,” Hillkirk said.
It would be hard to overstate the importance of Camp Dreamcatcher to families that utilize the programs, according to Takisha, a resident of Chester County who has two children who attend Camp Dreamcatcher. She loves that her children have a place to meet new people and to develop friendships. But more than that, she loves the emotional support that Camp Dreamcatcher provides. Again, it’s like a big family.
Takisha shared that when her grandfather passed away last October, Hillkirk and the Camp Dreamcatcher volunteers were right there to help the family through the difficult time.
Hillkirk said that providing that kind of support is essential to the evolving mission of Camp Dreamcatcher.
“It’s like this circle of love that people give to each other,” she said.
The effort continues
As Camp Dreamcatcher celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, the need for a camp like this one is probably as great as it was in 1996. Back then, there were more camps that served children who were dealing with HIV and AIDS. The number of camps has dwindled since then, for a variety of reasons.
Rae Rae, who serves on the Camp Dreamcatcher board, credits Hillkirk for the organization’s ability to withstand all the ups and downs over the course of 25 years.
“This is her dream come to life,” Rae Rae said. “She is a fearless leader who keeps forging on. She has done a wonderful job.”
She also lauded the efforts of the medical professionals who lend their time and talents to Camp Dreamcatcher. Patty Hewson, a pediatric nurse practitioner, is the longtime director of the health center.
Rae Rae said that she also marvels at how attuned the children are to their own needs.
“The kids have tremendous insight into health,” she explained. “They used to have to take an entire regimen of pills, but now the science has come a very long way. We have tremendous support from the medical staff during the camp.”
While educational initiatives and preventative programs have yielded results, there are still more than 1.1 million people living with HIV in the United States. It’s been estimated that between 10 percent and 15 percent of the people don’t know they are infected. That is a problem because those who aren’t aware of the infection can spread it without even knowing it, impacting many more people. Another issue is the sharing of needles by people who are abusing illegal drugs. Certain populations remain much more at risk than others, and communities where there are higher poverty rates and drug-use rates can lead to pockets of HIV outbreaks, such as the one that occurred in southern Indiana in 2015-2016.
During the week of camp in 2019, there was a significant number of new children at the camp who are HIV-positive, which is disheartening to Hillkirk and the Camp Dreamcatcher team. But it also indicative to Hillkirk and the more than 200 volunteers who staff the camp that the effort to help children continues. There are still tens of thousands of new HIV infections in the U.S. each year, and the disease still has a big emotional and physical impact on people, especially children.
For that reason, the mission continues, even after 25 years of work.
For parents like Robin Hope, it’s difficult to express just how life-changing Camp Dreamcatcher has been. She said that she credits Camp Dreamcatcher with helping her five wonderful children—all who are now 22 years old and above—to grow into five wonderful adults.
“I cry still because of all that Camp Dreamcatcher did for my children,” Hope said. “I could never repay Patty for what she has done for me. Patty is definitely one of my heroes. Thank God for Camp Dreamcatcher.”
To contact Steven Hoffman, email email@example.com.
How to help families in need right now
Patty Hillkirk, the executive director of Camp Dreamcatcher, said that more and more of the families are contacting the organization and saying that they are struggling as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic because they aren’t able to work. There is a growing need for food, clothing, and supplies. There is a link on the website (campdreamcatcher.org) to make donations of items or gift cards to families.
Camp Dreamcatcher has also created a Text-to-Give campaign page:
The Text to Give number is 44321. Include the message: Fund4families.
Simply text Fund4families to 44321 to make a donation.
For more information about how to help Camp Dreamcatcher, contact Hillkirk at firstname.lastname@example.org.