6 Things I’ve Learned from HIV Camp
My husband and I volunteer for a camp for kids with HIV. All campers are between ages 7 and 16. It’s a magical July week in the hot, hot Texas countryside. There’s swimming, high ropes, a zip line, horseback riding, fishing, archery, games, tie-dye, and dances.
A camp for youth living with HIV
Camp Hope creates a safe space for kids with HIV to learn important life skills. Treatment adherence, how to handle disclosure, and how to deal with stigma are taught amid a week of fun with their friends. The kids’ regular medical team attends too. This gives them a chance to learn about issues that may be affecting a camper’s health in a way they can’t spot during a clinic visit.
6 lessons learned from camp for HIV positive youth
The kids love it and many return every year, so we get to see them grow up. Even after 20+ years, there’s something new I learn from the campers and my fellow counselors each year. Here are some of my favorite lessons:
1. Start your day with loud music and dancing.
Every day after breakfast the campers and counselors gather at the front of the chow hall for morning aerobics. The music gets cranked up, and everyone dances. There are silly dances and line dances and chants and cheers. One of the counselors choreographs a special dance each year and teaches it to us all.
The lesson: It’s really hard to have a bad day when you start off laughing because you tripped over your feet (again), or saw a child’s delight at learning a new dance move.
2. Make healthy habits normal.
Mealtimes at camp play an important role in keeping kids healthy year-round. Many of our campers are the only person in their household who take drugs every day, so the simple act of seeing all their friends and counselors take their meds together normalizes adherence. And, if a kid gets sick from taking their pills at camp, their doctors know they aren’t adherent at home and can address that later. The doctors have run studies to prove that camp keeps kids compliant and healthier for months after they return home.
The lesson: Basic, good habits lay the foundation for life-long health.
3. Turn off your phone.
It may seem extreme, but no cell phones are allowed at camp. Campers must turn in their phones for the week for safe-keeping. Counselors only use them on breaks, out-of-sight of the kids. If you want to take a picture, you have to use one of those old-timey things called a camera. In an emergency, parents can get in touch by calling the landline at camp. It’s all part of creating a safe zone and giving the campers a break from the hardships of their daily lives.
The lesson: Check out of the real world for days to refresh and recharge your mind and soul. Don’t worry about it. Your bills and conflict in the Middle East will still be there when you get back.
4. Celebrate every good moment.
Every day, the Camp News Network (CNN) features pictures of the day’s activities and campers are recognized for their achievements. One girl may conquer her fear of heights on the ropes course and go down the zip line after years of refusing to try it. A boy may help clear the dinner table without being asked. Another may be especially kind of a fellow camper. Seeing their name and photograph up on the big screen, and hearing the whoops and applause reminds them not to be restricted by their diagnosis.
The lesson: Public recognition of every success, whether it’s large or small, reminds a child they can overcome obstacles.
5. Everyone needs a rock star to follow.
Former campers who are now old enough to volunteer as counselors are the rock stars of camp. They play with the younger kids and cajole the teens out of their occasional funks with expert precision. It’s wonderful to watch. These former campers know exactly what activities and conversations at camp sustained them after they went back home, and they truly want to give back to the next generation. They know what it’s like to take pills when you don’t want to or navigate a first crush. They serve as a light, a role model, that says, “Hey, you can make it, too.”
The lesson: Nothing beats a friend who completely, totally, 1,000 percent understands what you’re going through.
6. Being a kid with HIV is hard, but caring adults can help.
A former camper who is now 31 recently thanked us for helping her not lose her way when it came to her artistic talent. To be honest, I have no idea what we might have done to be helpful to this young woman. But every year, at least one or two counselors will hear something similar. Kids with HIV often lead hard lives where the virus is often the least of their worries. They need as many adults as possible in their lives, encouraging them through the tough times.
The lesson: You can make a big difference in a child’s life. Be there to listen. Tell them something good about themselves. Let them know that the bad days won’t last forever. One day you’ll get a thank-you note.
Camp Hope is run by AIDS Foundation Houston. If you would like to learn more about bringing kids to camp, email Lauren Brooke at [email protected]
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