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Chester County Press

Catching dreams for kids

05/25/2021 10:27AM ● By Steven Hoffman

There is a moment early on in Patty Hillkirk’s recent TEDx Talk when she asks the viewers to think about a time when an interaction with another person changed the course of his or her life— whether that change was for the good or the bad.

Next, Hillkirk, the executive director of Kennett Square-based Camp Dreamcatcher, shared her recollection of a fateful day when her own life was changed by two separate encounters that took place on the very same day.

She explained that when she was a teenager, she was convinced that she wanted to be a veterinarian because she always loved animals, especially dogs. When she was 17 and preparing for college, Hillkirk met with a school advisor to talk about registering for college classes. She went into the meeting thinking that she wanted to pursue pre-veterinary coursework. When she told the advisor of her plans, he looked down at the stack of papers on his desk and replied, “Patricia, you’re not smart enough for that. Just look at your grades.”

In that moment, Hillkirk said, her childhood dreams were gone.

“I left that room completely shattered. My dreams were thrown away,” she explained.

In her talk, Hillkirk only spends only a moment or two talking about the day that her own dream died. Most of the talk—in fact, most of Hillkirk’s professional life—has been dedicated to helping the dreams of children come true.

Hillkirk’s TEDx Talk, titled “Catching Dreams for Kids,” is a 16-minute journey of hope as she outlines the history and mission of Camp Dreamcatcher. Her talk was delivered at Unionville High School and a link to the video can be found on the Camp Dreamcatcher website at

It is.a daunting task to summarize all the emotions of the first 25 years of Camp Dreamcatcher—all the sorrows and all the joys, all the tears and all the smiles, all the fears and all the hopes—in under 18 minutes, but TEDx Talks are very structured.  A TEDx Talk is a showcase for speakers presenting great, well-formed ideas in under 18 minutes. Why under 18 minutes? Because the short talks work best since they only require the audience's attention for a short period of time.

TED is a nonprofit organization devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks. TED began in 1984 as a conference where Technology, Entertainment and Design converged, and today covers almost all topics — from science to business to global issues. Independently run TEDx events help share ideas in communities around the world.

Hillkirk’s TEDx Talk focuses on the life-changing journey of Camp Dreamcatcher and how she, and a small group of dedicated volunteers, created a therapeutic community for children impacted by HIV or AIDS. 

Remember that fateful day when Hillkirk’s dream of becoming a veterinarian were crushed by a person in a position of authority? On that same day, in the same building, Hillkirk met a person who would turn out to be a good friend, and that friend’s life helped to set Hillkirk on the course she would follow.

Hillkirk graduated from Penn State University and then the Pennsylvania Gestalt Center.

She learned that her friend from years before had been diagnosed with AIDS. At that time, an AIDS diagnosis was a death sentence because of the very limited treatments that were available. Hillkirk was motivated, in 1986, to volunteer with the Red Cross, as a therapist with adults living with HIV/AIDS.

Years passed. And then, in 1995, Hillkirk saw a 60 Minutes report about a camp in New York State that served children impacted by AIDS.

Shortly after the report aired, one of Hillkirk’s friends called her. There wasn’t even a discussion. The friend told her, “You have to do something.”

A few days later, some friends at the Pennsylvania Gestalt Center told Hillkirk the same thing. Hillkirk couldn’t stop thinking about the children in the 60 Minutes report. 

“There was something about seeing those kids’ faces and hearing their stories that really touched my heart,” Hillkirk said. “I had that spark that I think we all have when we are inspired and we feel like we need to do something.”

Hillkirk did something. By the summer of 1996, she had founded what would become Camp Dreamcatcher, a therapeutic community for children coping with HIV/AIDS. There were 53 children at that first camp.

Hillkirk started building a team of volunteers who would, year after year, provide, therapeutic and educational programs for children whose lives have been impacted by HIV or AIDS. Some of the volunteers from the early years, and even some of the campers, are still involved with Camp Dreamcatcher 25 years later. All the programs are free. The summer camp has evolved to include not only a week-long camp, but a variety of year-round programs. What might be more important to the children than the therapeutic programs is the unconditional love that the children receive while participating in the camp.

“The kids tell me that camp is the only place where they feel comfortable sharing their feelings about HIV and AIDS,” Hillkirk said. “We provide an atmosphere of tolerance and acceptance. The kids can let down their walls. Our counselors provide unconditional love to the campers.”

Camp Dreamcatcher has helped more than 5,700 children over the last 25 years.

“Our wonderful volunteers—who are really my heroes—have provided 240,000 hours of service,” Hillkirk said.

Today, the mission of Camp Dreamcatcher is as vital as ever. It is the only free, therapeutic program for children who are coping with the impact of HIV and AIDS on the East Coast. While there have been some impressive medical advancements that allow children who have AIDS to lead much longer, productive lives, there are still many challenges. Many of the children who attend camp have lost loved ones. Some live in poverty. Others are targets for bullying. 

COVID-19 has increased the level of anxiety and depression experienced by children. Last June, the CDC reported a 24 percent increase in emergency room visits for mental health related issues in children ages 5 to 11. 

At Camp Dreamcatcher, 70 percent of the children and volunteers at camp have been attending our programs for over ten years, which has allowed strong bonds to be formed. Those connections are important. For most of the children, Camp Dreamcatcher is like a second home.  

Hillkirk encouraged everyone to surround themselves with people who believe in them and their dreams.

“I have a challenge for all of you,” Hillkirk said. “Become dream catchers in your own lives. If someone whispers a dream, listen. Fuel the flame of a dream. Volunteer, roll up your sleeves, and get involved. By doing so, you’ll change the world.”

Camp Dreamcatcher Catching Dreams Virtual 5K and 1 Mile Run/Walk

Help make dreams come true for kids by supporting Camp Dreamcatcher and participating in the Virtual 5K and 1 Mile Run-Walk. Run or walk your distance anytime between now and June 6. You get to choose the course —pick somewhere convenient, inspiring, beautiful, easy, or all of the above. Both distances are $25 for Camp Dreamcatcher’s 25th anniversary. Kids 17 and under who participate can do so for $10. Every registrant will receive a special commemorative Catching Dreams Virtual 5K & 1 Mile finisher medal. For more information or to register, visit