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Chester County Press

‘It was really worth it to bring our family back together

10/11/2021 11:12PM ● By Steven Hoffman

The Camp Dreamcatcher staff and volunteers knew that when the kids arrived at camp this year, the burdens they were carrying would be heavier than normal. There was no in-person camp session in 2020—one more casualty of the global pandemic—and the impact of the coronavirus had hit many of the kids’ families hard.

So Patty Hillkirk, the founder and executive director, and the entire Camp Dreamcatcher team expected the children to be more affected by depression than in previous years. They also expected more behavioral issues during camp, especially for the youngest kids, because of all the extra pressures and the nearly two years that passed without a camp session. Camp Dreamcatcher did its best to continue providing therapeutic and educational programs as the pandemic dragged on month after month, but with the youngsters spread out in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Virginia, it was impossible to replicate the sense of community, the support, the camaraderie, and the love that gets shared during the week-long camp.

Hillkirk said that she and the staff and volunteers were probably looking forward to the camp session as much as the kids were, but much work needed to be done before everyone could finally come together again.

During its 26-year history, Camp Dreamcatcher has always provided a safe space for youngsters, and being safe in 2021—of course—means preventing the spread of the coronavirus. It was a lengthy process for Hillkirk, the health center team, and the other volunteers to develop a plan to keep Camp Dreamcatcher COVID-free and safe for the children and volunteers.

“It was very challenging,” Hillkirk said. “We worked on the preparations for about a year.”

She explained that they relied on recommendations from both the CDC and the American Camping Association to develop a strategy. There were more than 100 pages of guidelines to follow, and then some of those guidelines kept changing frequently in the weeks leading up to camp.

“The Delta variant made it more complicated,” Hillkirk said, explaining that all the campers were required to take a coronavirus PCR test within 96 hours of arriving at camp, and then a rapid COVID-19 test once they arrived at Camp Saginaw. Camp Dreamcatcher partnered with Rite Aid to administer the rapid tests. One youngster tested positive for coronavirus and wasn’t able to enter camp, which was hard for everyone. No one wanted a child eager to attend camp be turned away. But the stringent protocols ensured that the campers would be safe during the week that they were together.

“Children were only permitted to move into the main camp area after their negative COVID-19 test was confirmed by our medical volunteers,” Hillkirk said. 

Once on the site, Hillkirk said, campers and volunteers wore face coverings and socially distanced as much as possible, especially when they were indoors. Many of the programs were also held outside whenever possible.

“We did all these protective measures,” Hillkirk said. “Campers stayed within their own cabin family for the week, and wore masks if they were within six feet of distance to campers from another cabin. Meals and programs were held outside, and masks were worn inside program areas. There were sanitizer stations set up, and each person had their own hand sanitizers. The camp-wide activities were limited, so we created a lot of new programs. I think what it did for the campers and counselors is that it created a tighter bond.”

Everyone adjusted to the changes, and Hillkirk credited the health center team with helping to keep everyone safe during the week of camp.

“I have to acknowledge the work of our fabulous health center team, led by Patty Hewson,” said Hillkirk. “Thanks to their planning and the COVID-19 Safety Plan, we had a COVID-free camp.”

The hard work paid off in a big way when the campers and counselors enjoyed a highly successful camp week.

“It was really worth it to bring our family back together,” Hillkirk said. “It was wonderful. It was great to be together. It was great to see the kids.”

The 2021 camp week was certainly unlike any of the others that came before it. 

The program served 85 HIV/AIDS impacted youth between the ages of 5 and 17 and another 15 young adults between the ages of 18 and 25.

Hillkirk said that this year’s camp focused on issues like diversity, equity, and inclusion. Camp Dreamcatcher had conducted an equity assessment to explore whether everyone felt like they belonged at camp, and Hillkirk said that the organization made an effort to boost the diversity of experiences for everyone. There were more books and coloring books with diversity and gender identity provided to campers. 

The kids benefitted from approximately 85 therapeutic programs during the week, including programs on mindfulness, wilderness-based therapy, yoga, massages, and sessions with therapeutic dogs.

There were also approximately 55 educational programs, including dance classes with Emmanuel Chacon, a dancer and choreographer from Wilmington, Del. There were karate and self-defense classes, cooking classes. 

PayPal offered sessions on financial literacy topics like investing and budgeting. There were guest speakers and programming based on team-building and leadership training. For campers who are old enough, there were career readiness programs. The camp partnered with Wings for Success and Junior Achievement for career readiness sessions on the job search, the interview process, identifying interests, skills, and value to align with career paths, wearing the right outfit and attitude, the impact of social media, how to build a strong resume, the importance of networking, getting out of debt and how to build credit.

And then there was the fun—this is, after all, a summer camp. There were 150 recreational programs—arts and crafts, pottery, laser tag, go-kart racing, horseback riding, water slides, giant games, archery, basketball, an adventure course, and movie nights.

Camp Dreamcatcher wouldn’t be able to do what it does without an army of volunteers, many of whom come back year after year to help make sure that the kids have a safe, fun, and beneficial camp.

“I was blown away by the number of volunteers this year,” Hillkirk said. “We were running from the time camp started to the final circle,” she said. “We were really busy. Camp was a success because of the volunteers. The focus was on giving the kids a great experience.”

As a precautionary measure, the volunteers and staff operated in a kind of bubble to limit the risk of exposure to the coronavirus. Meals were brought in so that the volunteers and staffers didn’t have to go out, and they spent their free time together.

Aurora Pizzeria & Pasta Kitchen delivered food and the Starbucks in West Grove delivered beverages. Camp Saginaw offered the Dreamcatcher staff access to a house on the premises where the volunteers could take a few hours to relax when they had a chance. They also had a cookout for staff and volunteers.

Hillkirk thanked all the supporters who donated items for camp week. She said that all the medical supplies and arts and crafts items were quickly provided by donors.

“It was really unbelievable,” Hillkirk said, noting that many of the donors faithfully support Camp Dreamcatcher’s activities year after year. 

There were also some new partners this year, including one southern Chester County nonprofit organization that provided an item of particular need for the youngsters. All of the campers received new sneakers during the camp session. The donation was made by Tom and Lynn Engel from Max’s Kicks for Kids, a non-profit organization that provides new back-to-school shoes for children in need in Chester County. Max’s Kicks for Kids was founded in honor and memory of Max Engle, who worked as a probation officer in Chester County until his death in September 2018. Max was the first male probation officer in Chester County’s WRAP (Women’s Reentry Assessment & Programming) Initiative, and in this role, he worked with at-risk women who were on parole or probation. He helped these women rebuild and restart their lives, and by helping them, he helped their families. After his death, the family heard from many people about the impact Max had on their lives. He had a collection of dozens of pairs of sneakers, and the family decided they wanted to start Max’s Kicks for Kids to provide back-to-school sneakers for children who would not otherwise be able to afford them.

Hillkirk explained that, after Max’s Kicks for Kids delivered a large donation of shoes, they returned to camp with another donation for anyone who didn’t find their sizes in the first group.

“For our kids to get new shoes right before school—that’s great,” said Hillkirk. “It was really meaningful.”

Donors, collaborations, and partnerships are essential to Camp Dreamcatcher’s existence. Hillkirk said that they have been working to increase the partnerships with colleges throughout the area, including Lincoln University, West Chester University, Rutgers University, and the University of Delaware among them. 

The goal is to provide as much support and as many opportunities to the youngsters as they can. While the organization has continually evolved through the years, the core mission remains the same. Youngsters who have been impacted by HIV or AIDS deal with a lot of the same issues that everyone else their age deals with, but for these kids they are more likely to feel isolated or alone because there is still a stigma about the dreaded disease. Many of the kids don’t feel like they can talk about their feelings. 

“That is one of the things that is so important about camp,” Hillkirk explained. “The camp is a safe space for all of that to come out. Every day, we had people sharing their stories. That was very powerful.”

Hillkirk said that Camp Dreamcatcher’s next big event is a 25th anniversary Catching Dreams for Kids virtual event on Nov. 6. This will include an online auction, a raffle, and stories and videos from camp. 

The keynote speaker will be Lakeisha Brown, who started attending Camp Dreamcatcher as a camper in 1996. Lakeisha’s mother passed away from AIDS-related complications, but she overcame those challenges and went on to go to college. She was selected as the 2019 DC Teacher of the Year in Washington, D.C., and she was also honored as the 2020 Miss DC for America. Brown is a real success story, and she serves as an inspiration for the younger campers. Hillkirk said that Lakeisha’s story really captures the essence of Camp Dreamcatcher and the power of community and the shift from isolation to resiliency and hope.

For more information about Camp Dreamcatcher and the upcoming Catching Dreams for Kids event, visit www.campdreamcatcher.org.


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