Camp Dreamcatcher Goes Virtual for this Year’s Camp08/12/2020 04:19PM ● By Steven Hoffman
The children who attend Camp Dreamcatcher’s week-long therapeutic camp are resilient. So nothing—not even a global pandemic—was going to stand in the way of Camp Dreamcatcher in its efforts to continue to provide the services, support and love that so many children have come to count on during the past 25 years.
When it became apparent earlier this summer that the ongoing efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 were going to make it impossible for Camp Dreamcatcher to safely bring together more than 120 campers and an additional 250 volunteers for the regular in-person camp, a decision was made to turn the 2020 camp session into a virtual camp that would deliver as many of the regular programs as possible.
The first week of the virtual Camp Dreamcatcher is taking place this week with children between the ages of 6 and 10 participating in a variety of activities during two-hour programs each day.
From Aug. 17 to 21, youngsters between the ages of 11 and 17 will participate in the online camp. These older campers will receive three or four hours of programming each day.
Patty Hillkirk, the executive director of the Kennett Square-based organization, said that the decision to change the format of this year’s camp was “heartbreaking.” Even though everyone would have preferred the traditional camp week where the Camp Dreamcatcher family gets together, when that was no longer possible, organizers were determined to make the most of it by planning what Hillkirk called a “fun and action-packed” virtual camp. There are so many activities planned that you would think organizers had a full year to plan to deliver the services online.
“It’s going to be really fun,” Hillkirk said.
A critical piece of the planning puzzle was ensuring that all the children have the necessary technology to participate in the virtual camp. A local foundation recently awarded a grant to support purchasing 31 Inspiron laptop tablets so that the children who do not have devices can participate in the virtual programming.
“It was wonderful to tell the families that the children do not have to turn in the laptops after the camp session, and that they can keep them for virtual programming for school in the fall,” said Hillkirk. “That will open up a whole new world for them.” She added that the organization also managed to secure 16 iPhones that could be distributed to youngsters for them to use.
In an effort to replicate the programming and experience of the regular camp week, the children will be divided into virtual cabins with counselors. Hillkirk said that they will keep the children in the same cabins, and with the same counselors, as last summer.
Some of the regular features of the camp, including the opening ceremony, the talent show, and the emotional wishlog ceremony, are all expected to be incorporated into the online program.
There are currently 85 campers and 60 volunteers registered for the camp session.
Hillkirk said that the volunteers and Camp Dreamcatcher supporters once again really stepped up to help with the organization’s mission to offer programs and services for children who are affected by HIV and AIDS. The circumstances this year resulted in significant changes in the schedule—instead of programs taking place in one week, now everything is spread out over two weeks. Many of the staff members, volunteers, and counselors were able to change their schedules to accommodate the new plans. As a result, the youngsters will be able to take part in 75 therapeutic and educational programs and 45 recreational programs throughout the two weeks. All the sessions will be facilitated by Camp Dreamcatcher staff, counselors, health center volunteers, village chiefs, therapists, instructors, educators, program specialists and community members.
The therapeutic programs that will take place virtually include yoga, mindfulness classes, meditation, therapeutic groups, music therapy and more. Effective therapy has always been a cornerstone of Camp Dreamcatcher, and the camp is always a safe place for children to talk about issues that they are experiencing in their lives. These issues could include personal or family trauma that they may be dealing with. Many of the youngsters are also facing issues of bullying, poverty, police brutality, or racism. Camp Dreamcatcher has trained therapists to help the children work on these issues.
There is a program about living with HIV and AIDS and another about health and wellness. Topics to be discussed during these educational sessions include the importance of hygiene, nutrition and exercise, and staying safe and healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hillkirk was also pleased that, for the first time, Camp Dreamcatcher is able to offer parents and guardians the opportunity to meet one-on-one with a health center volunteer through a Zoom meeting to discuss any health concerns they may have for their family.
There are plenty of fun educational programs, too—children can learn about theatre, take part in writing workshops, and enjoy story times.
Participants in Camp Dreamcatcher’s Leadership-in-Training Program will be able to learn about life skills like writing an effective résumé, applying to college, or preparing for a job interview.
There will also be plenty of fun—including arts and crafts, a scavenger hunt, escape room games, bingo, movies, and a digital music program. A large contingent of PayPal volunteers will be doing virtual games with the youngsters.
Hillkirk explained that they are partnering with several new artists who will be leading art therapy sessions for the children this year. There are also many returning instructors who have been longtime volunteers with Camp Dreamcatcher.
Popular local artist Susan Myers will be working with 6-to-10-year-olds on an art project. For campers between the ages of 14 and 17, they will be working on making a journal with e bond, a multi-talented local artist who makes one-of-a-kind artists books, printed pieces and drawings that merge and blur the boundaries of art, craft, design and poetry.
Cathey White is an artist and educator from Philadelphia who will be working with youngsters between the ages of 14 and 17 on art projects. White is known for artwork that inspires people from every cultural, ethnic and economic background. She remains consistently inspired by her urban environment and the beauty that can be found in it.
Ken Pienkos, a longtime volunteer with Camp Dreamcatcher, will be conducting a writing workshop for youngsters. There is also a Circle of Love Group Grid Art Project where more than a dozen youngsters will each draw anything they want on one square. When they are finished, they will take a photo or scan the image of their creative piece of art. An artist will then transform the students’ work into one cohesive piece of art that will be completed in time to be displayed during the talent show.
One of the guest speakers this year is Lakeisha C. Brown, who is not only Miss DC for America 2020, she is also a Teacher-of-the-Year recipient. “She is amazing,” Hillkirk said, explaining that Brown once attended Camp Dreamcatcher and has made issues related to HIV and AIDS part of her platform as Miss DC for America for the year. Brown earned a bachelor’s degree in art and special education from Albright College. She was also a standout track and field athlete who held numerous indoor track records. During her 15-year career as an educator, Brown has taught in several states and countries. She has taught English as a Second Language (ESL) internationally in China, Malaysia, and South Korea. She was awarded the 2019 District of Columbia Teacher of the Year and named as a finalist for the 2020 Washington Post Teacher of the Year Award.
With the wide variety of programs, therapy sessions, and activities that are familiar to the children, Hillkirk is pleased with what Camp Dreamcatcher will be able to offer this year as everyone looks forward to being together again for a regular camp during the summer of 2021.
“It’s been interesting trying to pull this together,” Hillkirk said. “We’re trying to keep it as fun and connected as possible.”
During the first week in August, Camp Dreamcatcher distributed packages for each family. The packages included everything from backpacks and water bottles to S’ mores snacks and Bombas socks. The packages included toiletry kits, there were also blankets from the Linus Project, Camp Dreamcatcher shirts and face masks, and a variety of supplies for the arts and crafts projects.
Hillkirk said that the children were overjoyed when they received their packages, which was a nice way to get them prepared for the opening of the camp sessions.
She added that being able to provide assistance in any form to the youngsters is more important now than ever because everyone is suffering from the social and economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic—and many of the youngsters who attend Camp Dreamcatcher were already facing significant challenges even before the pandemic.
After the COVID-19 outbreak hit the U.S. hard, Camp Dreamcatcher received a lot of requests for assistance from the families of the children. “We started getting calls almost right away,” Hillkirk said. Camp Dreamcatcher, which is based in Kennett Square, immediately established an emergency fund that raised about $8,000. As a result, Camp Dreamcatcher was able to distribute $100 gift cards to 53 families that included a total of 190 people. Now, they are doing a second round of $100 gift cards to those families that need further assistance.
For more information about how to volunteer or to make a donation to help with the mission of Camp Dreamcatcher, email [email protected] or visit the organization’s Facebook page or website at www.campdreamcatcher.org.