Camp Hope lets HIV-positive kids be kids.
By Kelly McCann
In the mid ’90s, HIV-positive children were not allowed to attend traditional summer camps. Confronted with such inequity, Mike Mizwa, Sara Selber, and a few other inspired AIDS Foundation Houston employees and volunteers decided to create a camp where children with HIV would not only be welcome, but could experience the joys of summer camp in a medically and psychosocially supportive environment.
In 1996, Camp Hope was established by AFH as Texas’ first camp for children living with HIV/AIDS. Twenty-two campers attended that first year. From those modest beginnings, Camp Hope has grown significantly. More than 150 children now attend each year, and we have hosted campers from Texas, Florida, Mexico, and even Romania.
For one week later this month, AFH will convene our 12th annual Camp Hope at the beautiful and barrier-free Camp For All, near Brenham. Campers ages seven through 15 will enjoy the usual camp activities like canoeing, swimming, horseback riding, arts and crafts, and roasting marshmallows over a campfire. They will go on nature hikes and bike rides, and they will watch fireworks. They will have loads of fun, and they will leave with camp memories they will cherish forever.
Camp Hope attendees will also have opportunities to challenge themselves and grow from the experiences. They will face their fears when they sing karaoke in the talent show or swim to the deep end of the pool. They will overcome uncertainty and build self-esteem by climbing to the top of the tower and sliding down the zip line. The older campers will learn about safer sex and when and how to disclose their HIV status to teachers, friends, or dating partners. All campers will form valuable, supportive, and lifelong friendships with other kids who share their concerns and the same stigmatizing disease. And for many of the children, Camp Hope will become a favorite place.
The importance of Camp Hope in the lives of our campers became abundantly clear to me because of two campers in particular. First, there was “Valerie.” She was a young teenager from Florida who loved coming to Camp Hope. Year after year, Valerie’s health declined, but she would make it to camp, nonetheless.
One year, when her kidneys were failing, Valerie arrived at camp in a wheelchair and with a “Do Not Resuscitate” order, in case she fell ill while at camp. I’m happy to report, Valerie did not die at camp that year, but instead had a great week. She talked and laughed and sang with her friends and she even danced in her wheelchair with a counselor she had befriended years before. Seeing the joy on Valerie’s face made tears well up in my eyes.
But the camper who made the biggest impression on me was a boy I’ll call T.J. T.J. was in attendance at the first Camp Hope and he attended every year after that. According to his grandmother, he looked forward to camp all year, and, eventually, she even told us she believed he lived for camp.
Over the years, T.J. became increasingly frail, as HIV began to win the battle. In 2003, at the age of 14, he arrived at camp looking sickly and emaciated, with sunken eyes and thinning hair. It appeared his little body was shutting down. He could not maintain his body temperature, so even in mid-July he wore a heavy parka. He was weak and easily fatigued, so he could not participate in many activities.
But he was at camp—a place he loved. And that year, he enjoyed as many aspects of camp as he could, especially his favorite activity, fishing. Despite his illness, T.J. was up at dawn every day. If you got up early enough, you’d see him, in his parka, sitting on the dock of the lake with a line in the water. And you knew T.J. was happy, even though he was facing death from AIDS.
T.J. died two weeks after he returned home from camp. Many of us were touched by the courage, grace, and love of life he displayed, even in his final days.
In T.J.’s memory, we at AFH placed a bench down by the lake where he loved to fish. Each year when I return to Camp For All, I walk down to the lake, take a seat on the bench and think of T.J. I also think of all the other children whose lives have been enriched by this wonderful place. And I’m humbled and grateful that I have been allowed to be a part of something so special.
If you would like to learn more about Camp Hope or other AFH camp programs, please visit www.AIDSHelp.org or call 713/623-6796.
Kelly McCann is the chief executive officer of AIDS Foundation Houston, which recently marked its 25th year of service. Details: www.aidshelp.org.