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Chester County Press

For the last 27 years, Camp Dreamcatcher has been a positive force in the lives of youngsters who have been impacted by HIV or AIDS

09/14/2023 11:30AM ● By Steven Hoffman

For seven sun-splashed and fun-filled days in August, more than 100 youngsters from throughout the Mid-Atlantic region enjoyed the programs and activities offered at Camp Dreamcatcher, the only free therapeutic program for children who are coping with the impact of HIV and AIDS on the East Coast.

Taj Brown, a 45-year-old volunteer who serves as a village chief during the week-long camp session, explained that the campers can take part in all the usual summer camp activities like swimming, riding go-karts, playing basketball or participating in outdoor games. But at this camp those fun activities are augmented by a wide variety of therapeutic programs and counseling sessions aimed at helping the children overcome the challenges they face during their daily lives.

“We had the therapeutic part down right away because that’s Patty’s expertise,” Brown said.

Patty Hillkirk, Camp Dreamcatcher’s founder and executive director, said that this year’s camp offered the youngsters 120 therapeutic sessions, 50 educational programs, and 150 recreational programs. More than 170 volunteers, including medical personnel, professionals, and community members worked to deliver a fun and memorable experience for the campers. Those numbers only begin to tell the Camp Dreamcatcher tale, though. It’s the feeling of togetherness and belonging that so many of the campers talk about that really begins to tell the Camp Dreamcatcher story. It’s a story that spans 27 years—and counting. It’s a story about a family that includes more than 6,000 children and hundreds of dedicated volunteers who have formed bonds with each other.

“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 been a part of Brown’s life since he was still a teenager in 1996 when his pastor’s wife told him about a camp that was starting to help children infected with or affected by HIV and AIDS. Twenty-seven years later, he’s now one of the many longtime volunteers who have watched the initial group of campers grow into adults and maybe have children of their own. In some cases, the campers today are the children and grandchildren of campers who attended in the 1990s or early 2000.

Brown said that they get to spend time with children—especially during the week-long camp session, but also for retreat s and get-togethers throughout the year. The adult volunteers can model good behavior for the children to learn from.

“Be kind, work hard, and be helpful,” Brown explained.

As C.J., a teen camper who has been coming to Camp Dreamcatcher for years explained, “I come back because camp is a big family. Everybody cares about each other.”

Brown, who started coming to Camp Dreamcatcher when he was still a teen, said that the goal is to create a safe and supportive environment for each camper.

 “We call it the safest place on Earth,” Brown said. 

The Camp Dreamcatcher story

A decade before Hillkirk founded Camp Dreamcatcher, she volunteered with the Red Cross as a therapist and worked with adults who were living with HIV and AIDS. There were limited treatments available for AIDS patients at the time. Hillkirk had had a friend who had been diagnosed with AIDS. And, as a trained therapist, she understood the devastating impact that AIDS was having on children and families. These children could benefit from counseling and therapy, but in many cases this help wasn’t available to them. A seed had been planted.

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. Hillkirk recalled seeing the faces of the children and hearing their stories. She was moved—and she was motivated to do something to help children.

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.”

Just a few days later, some friends at the Pennsylvania Gestalt Center told Hillkirk the same thing: She had to do something. Hillkirk couldn’t stop thinking about the children in the “60 Minutes” report. 

So Hillkirk did something. 

By the summer of 1996, she had founded what would become Camp Dreamcatcher, a therapeutic community for children coping with HIV and AIDS. There were 53 children at that first summer camp. That was also the year that Hillkirk started building a team of volunteers who would provide so many therapeutic and educational programs—and so much love and support—to the children. Some of the volunteers from the early years, and even some of the campers, are still involved with Camp Dreamcatcher 27 years later. 

Camp Dreamcatcher evolves to meet changing needs 

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, among them.

While there have been some important medical advancements that allow children who have AIDS to live much longer and more productive lives, there are still many challenges that they face. Some of the campers have lost loved ones and deal with grief. Some live in poverty. Others are targets for bullying in school as they work to overcome the challenges of living with AIDS.

Camp Dreamcatcher has evolved each year to meet the changing needs of youngsters. During the camp, children can take part in therapy sessions with highly trained therapists and talk about their concerns and fears. These programs and offerings at the camp are as important as ever. When this year’s camp took place from Aug. 20 to Aug. 26 on the Camp Saginaw property outside of Oxford, there were more participants than last year, including a significant number of first-time campers.

Hillkirk said that there were 30 new campers among the 106 participants in this year’s camp. Out of the 30 first-time campers, 20 were between the ages of 5 and 8. This illustrates the existing need for this kind of camp.

All the programs at the camp are free. Camp Dreamcatcher has evolved to include not only the week-long camp, but a variety of other initiatives, including a mentoring program, HIV and AIDS outreach and education programs, teen leadership retreats, and a highly successful camper to counselor program. Hillkirk is always evaluating the programs and offerings to make sure that the needs of the youngsters are being met.  For this year’s camp, they increased the number of therapists working to facilitate groups from 8 to 11.

They also hired a consultant to teach some of the Camp Dreamcatcher leaders about restorative practices. The staff learned how to utilize circles to resolve conflicts. As anyone who has attended a summer camp will attest, conflicts are going to happen when you have more than 100 children together in one place. Instead of having adults act as the authority to settle disputes, they join a circle. Each person involved explains what happened and what needs to happen to make things better. The ideas is that, instead of having an authority figure settle disputes, the people involved work toward a solution on their own.

Hillkirk said that this year’s camp provided 100 restorative circles facilitated by the camp’s leadership team to build connections and resolve conflicts. 

“Everybody has an equal seat at the table,” Hillkirk explained. “It was remarkable to see the circles and how they worked at the camp. Our hope is that the kids will be able to take what they learned out in to the world.”

‘Make the world exactly the way you want it’

Each camper and volunteer has a unique story about how he or she first found Camp Dreamcatcher, but many keep coming back year after year for similar reasons. Simply put, it’s a family.

In his first years as a camper, C.J. formed a friendship with Myles, one of the other campers. They were elementary school students when they met, and now they are teenagers. Camp is something that they look forward to. C.J. and Myles have participated in the leadership-in-training program and next year they will be old enough to serve as counselors.

Jack said that he has watched C.J. and Myles mature year after year. Once, they were children who would take forever to complete a simple chore. Now, they are young adults who are showing their growth every day.

C.J. credited Jack, one of the Camp Dreamcatcher volunteers, with helping to open his eyes to nature. Jack is a registered nurse who serves on the Camp Dreamcatcher Board of Directors. He is part of the dedicated team of volunteers that has donated more than 240,000 hours in service to the children through the years.

Hillkirk said that Camp Dreamcatcher’s work wouldn’t be possible without so many talented and giving volunteers. The unconditional love that the volunteers offer to the campers is important.

Jack said that he another one of the volunteers will occasionally meet C.J. to go for a hike in the Ridley Creek State Park. The bonds that are formed help everyone get the most out of the week-long summer camp. The older campers help the younger campers get acclimated to the environment.

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, adding programing and training, especially for the older campers, the core mission remains the same. 

“This is a place where you can make the world exactly the way you want it to be—at least for a week,” Jack said.

Remembering Ginny

Ginny Fineberg, one of the organization’s earliest and most dedicated supporters, passed away in the fall of 2022. Fineberg was a familiar presence at the camp, and she was really missed at the first large gathering of the Camp Dreamcatcher family since then.

Fineberg’s connection to Camp Dreamcatcher dated back to 1997, when Hillkirk contacted her to see if Sandpiper Embroidery could donate some hats with the Camp Dreamcatcher logo. Sandpiper Embroidery was Fineberg’s successful business.

Fineberg not only donated the hats, she wanted to also meet the kids and find out more about the organization’s mission.

That started what Hillkirk called a “legacy of love and dedication to the children and volunteers.” 

Over the next 26 years, Fineberg served Camp Dreamcatcher in a variety of roles, including as a counselor, a village chief, a board member, and, ultimately, as board president. She was a tireless advocate for the kids at Camp Dreamcatcher. Fineberg and her own children, Cindy and Dan, created thousands of Camp Dreamcatcher t-shirts, blankets, backpacks, hats, jackets and other items over the 26 years.

At camp, she formed strong bonds with the children. Hillkirk said that Ginny had a special ability to identify what was special about each camper.

“She was remarkable,” Hillkirk said. “She embodied our mission to provide a loving, accepting, compassionate, inclusive and safe Home for children coping with HIV/AIDS.”

Over the edge

The spirit of Camp Dreamcatcher can be found in dedicated volunteers like Rae Rae Adams. Her dedication seemingly has no bounds. This year, Camp Dreamcatcher is bringing a different kind of fundraiser to Kennett Square when, on September 29, volunteers who want to support the mission of the organization can take part in a rappelling adventure. The volunteers will be rappelling down the Franklin Center Building all through the day. Camp Dreamcatcher is partnering with Over the Edge, a special events company that provides signature events for non-profit organizations across Canada and the United States, for this fundraiser. Of course, the success of the event depends upon Camp Dreamcatcher supporters being willing to go “over the edge” for the cause. According to Hillkirk, when the Over the Edge fundraiser was announced, Rae Rae was the first person to volunteer to rappel down the side of Kennett Square’s tallest building in order to raise money to help children.

Adams wrote the following about why she volunteered for the Over the Edge fundraiser: “I would do anything for the Camp Dreamcatcher organization. The love and purpose of life I receive from the children, the staff, and volunteers, is emotionally overwhelming. Anything I do to give back can’t compare to the joy and sense of well-being I receive in return.”

In addition to the dedicated family of volunteers, Camp Dreamcatcher also benefits from the support of businesses and leaders in the community. Sponsors for the Over the Edge event include Genesis HealthCare, which is offering the use of its building, Philly AIDS Thrift, LBG Properties, Taylor Oil and Propane Inc., The Market at Liberty Place, ANCHOR Life + Fitness, 

S & T Bank, New BDB Company, Aardvark Pest Control Services, Kennett Square Lions Club, AMSkier Insurance, Citadel Credit Union, Cope Construction and Renovation, Fairfield Inn & Suite Kennett Square.

“I’m overwhelmed by the support of the community,” Hillkirk said.

People who are interested in taking part in rappelling and raising the $1000 sponsorship should go online to, where there is an application form.

For more information about Camp Dreamcatcher and the upcoming Catching Dreams Over the Edge event, visit