It's nearly dusk at Camp Pacific Heartland in Malibu and teenager Stephon Cooperawls sits beside me, watching the summer sun sink into the sea. All the other campers are in the dining room having dinner, but Cooperawls has a story to tell, and this is the only place he feels safe talking about it.
"I first got involved with camp when I was 7 years old. I didn't know I had it when I was 7. I was living with a foster parent, and she just brought me here," Cooperawls began.
"As I got older, I started to have a clue, wondering 'Why am I here?' and 'Why am I taking meds?' and 'Why am I going to the hospital?' It all just added up, and one day, my father came to me and said, 'Stephon, I just want to tell you something: You have HIV.'"
Cooperawls, a 17-year-old African American, was born with HIV. And like many of the children between the ages of 6 and 20 who have passed through Camp Pacific Heartland or its sister arts camp, Camp Hollywood Heart, he is battling what is considered one of the greatest epidemics of our time.
Cooperawls is both infected and affected by the disease: his biological father died of AIDS, and his mother, who abandoned him as an infant, is also infected.
"When I found out I had it, I always thought I was just going to up and die one day, but I've learned that you're not going to die. You die when it's your time to go," he said.
But nobody is going anywhere this week. Nestled high in the Malibu Mountains at Wilshire Boulevard Temple's Gindling Hilltop Camp, Cooperawls and the other campers enjoy what many call the best week of their lives. It is the one week of the year when they are free from judgment in a place where they can swim and use the bathrooms without any erroneous worrying about disease transmission, and where they make new friends with whom they can share their secret.
It is an empowering and life-altering experience for each camper, but it has also transformed the life of David Gale, the Hollywood executive whose quest for meaning brought Camp Heartland to Southern California.
"Every one of us asks what our purpose is in life," Gale said, reflecting on what this experience has meant to him.
"Very often, it's your career, maybe your family, but for me it's been, 'How can I make an impact on people in the world?' But this is not a one-sided exchange. These kids have made me appreciate the value of life."
Having grown up with Crohn's disease, itself a serious illness, Gale shares a unique kinship with the hundreds of children he helps. An otherwise unassuming individual, today dressed in shorts and a T-shirt with a digital camera hanging from his neck, his sensitivity to the kids' condition is visceral and palpable. At camp, Gale is not one of the top executives at MTV, he's just "David," and he doesn't really want to talk about his professional success. He wants this story to be about the kids.
Working in an industry characterized by tough personalities and superficial values, Gale's genuine modesty is rare. Inasmuch as his talent and ambition have earned him considerable success (he is a Stanford graduate and also holds a law degree from New York University), the vice president of MTV new media and specialty films has coupled his personal achievements with giving to others. He believes lasting happiness results from three things: doing what you love, contact with people you love and philanthropic giving.
"There's not even close to enough of that happening in Hollywood. That's why there are so many unhappy people despite their success -- because they're not giving, they're taking, they're demanding, they're insisting -- and they judge their success in life based on the box office, based on their power, their deals and who knows them," Gale said.
"This camp, this organization [Hollywood Heart] gives me true happiness. I get back so much more in ways that are impossible to quantify, in ways I couldn't get from anything material or anything else I've ever done," he said.
Gale's desire to give was the result of a tremendous loss. When his mother was dying of cancer, he saw the outpouring of community support coming from her synagogue, which inspired his own involvement with Wilshire Boulevard Temple. And it was 15 years ago, when he sat on the social action committee, that Gale, now 50, realized he could do more than chair the synagogue's food pantry.
At the time, Gale was vice president of MTV Films, a division he created and through which he produced a bevy of hits, including, "Election," "Jackass," "Napoleon Dynamite" and "Varsity Blues." During his 11 years at the helm, MTV Films grossed more than $1 billion at the box office and garnered their first Academy Award nomination (for "Election," which Gale says, is the film that makes him most proud). Without any personal tie, he was struck by the horrors of the rising AIDS epidemic and immediately decided to start a camp for HIV/AIDS-infected youth.
"I love the movies I've made and I'm very proud of them, but it's just a credit, whereas something that's extremely deep and meaningful and lasting is truly the thing that I would want people to remember me for. Not my movies," he said.
As fulfilling as philanthropy is, Gale is quick to point out that his commercial success has significantly enabled his ability to give.
"I could not have started this charity without my success and without my connections," he said plainly. For starters, although Wilshire Boulevard Temple did not wish to directly sponsor the camp project, they offered Gale use of their camp facilities in Malibu at a greatly reduced rate.
With access to money and powerful industry connections, Gale could offer financial support for a camp, but with the demands of his job, did not have the ability to program his dream from scratch.
Enter Neil Willenson, a fellow Jew from Wisconsin who had already established a camp for at-risk kids but without a permanent home yet.
Willenson's journey began when he read a disturbing article in his local paper titled "AIDS Hysteria" about 5-year-old Nile Sandeen, who contracted HIV from his mother and suffered cruel abuse at the hands of his community. Through his friendship with Sandeen, Willenson discovered that the stigma of the disease and the many misconceptions surrounding HIV/AIDS often caused more emotional suffering than the disease itself.
"The scourge of paranoia is worse than HIV," said Willenson, 37, the founder of Camp Heartland. "HIV may be the most manageable part of their lives."
In 1993, Camp Heartland's inaugural summer, Willenson welcomed 72 kids from 20 states to a one-week, cost-free retreat at a leased campsite in Milwaukee where there was hiking, horseback riding and archery. The following summer, he received a call from Gale, who took a red-eye to visit Willenson's Camp Heartland. By the summer of 1995, Gale and Willenson launched Camp Pacific Heartland, the West Coast version of Willenson's concept, funded through Gale's efforts and with the goal of recruiting at least 50 percent of its campers from Southern California.
The night I visit is "MTV Night" at camp, and the speakers are blaring Madonna. All 60 kids are breathless with anticipation over who this year's surprise celebrity guest will be. Gale's connections in Hollywood have produced a gaggle of celebrities here over the years, including Chris Tucker, Cuba Gooding Jr., Brandy and David Arquette.
When Wilmer Valderrama of "That '70s Show" arrives, he joins his screaming, adoring fans for a late-night dance party.
A 7-year-old girl gasps, "He's handsome! He's everything!"
She could be talking about Hollywood writer/director John Gatins, one of Hollywood Heart's most passionate advocates and a current board member, who is visiting tonight just for fun.
Gatins, who wrote "Coach Carter," will return for Camp Hollywood Heart (the arts camp for Heartland graduates ages 16-20) to teach a writing workshop. He says he charts his life by this camp and that it inspired him to have children (he has three, ages 7, 5 and 18 months). Just prior to the release of his first feature film, "Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story," DreamWorks gave him special permission to screen it at the camp.
"The night that I showed my movie here, I remember driving down that long, crazy hill to leave, and I just started laughing, and then I started kind of weeping, thinking, 'Wow I've never had such an amazing audience,'" Gatins recalled, almost tearfully.
"You work in the business, and everything is about the business. Everything is about, like, 'How did it play?' 'Will it work?' 'How do you sell it?' And to hear 100 kids laugh in the situations they're in, I sent DreamWorks an e-mail the next day that said, 'Look, I just have to tell you that I had an experience last night that for the first time my work felt meaningful on a level it never has.'"For 14 years now, Camp Pacific Heartland has been a safe haven for thousands of children living with HIV/AIDS. The other 51 weeks of the year, many of them live under a veil of secrecy and shame about their illness. During camp, youth wear bracelets indicating whether they are "public" or not. Many of their schools, teachers, classmates and clergy do not know they are ill. And for good reason: The stigma is powerful.
Willenson notes that most camps would not allow HIV-infected kids to use their pools, even though the disease cannot be transmitted through water. He has countless stories of children and their families who have been asked to leave religious institutions, use separate bathrooms or have been barred from participating in contact sports at school.
But while camp relieves them of the emotional and social isolation they live with in their everyday lives, their disease comes to camp with them.
"Club Meds" is where campers go to take their medications, in IV, liquid or pill form. Many of the younger children vomit from what are extremely distasteful medicines, and nurses must administer drugs over and over again until they go down properly.
Just 10 years ago, the dosage was so frequent that nurses had to wake kids in the middle of the night, said one nurse. Today, with more and better medicine available, doses have diminished from 20 pills to four or five, and fortunately, with 25 medications available, HIV/AIDS patients are living longer.
Camp Pacific Heartland's medical team, consisting of one doctor and three nurses, are all unpaid volunteer staff who use their vacation time to care for these campers each summer.
As if the ravages of the disease weren't enough, 75 percent of campers come from abject poverty and many from abusive homes. Many grieve for loved ones whom they have lost and confront a crippling fear of their own mortality every day.
Camp Pacific's Heartland's success has spawned several offshoot programs that led Gale to create a Hollywood Heart nonprofit foundation, now the umbrella organization for several endeavors.
In 2001, Hollywood Heart created an independent program called The Movie Team, which began as a filmmaking workshop at camp in which campers would work together to create their own film. The program has since expanded into a year-round program, replete with a red-carpet premiere party at a major Hollywood studio. It has also sprouted in South Africa, where the Cape Town Film Commission is funding its own sister version for local at-risk youth.
Gale feels a particular responsibility to equip camp graduates with skills and talents that will enable them to find jobs.
For now, his dreams are big, but his funding is limited. With an economic downturn already affecting major contributions (Hollywood Heart relies primarily on the corporate sponsorship of The Warped Tour and the International Society of Hospitality Purchasers), Gale is concerned they may have to scale back programming in order to survive. Hollywood Heart operates on an annual budget of $450,000, and each Movie Team workshop incurs costs of $20,000. With Gale as the organization's primary spokesperson, an admittedly poor self-promoter, he hasn't tapped into either the celebrity quotient or the Jewish community for needed infusions.
"I don't play the Hollywood name game very well," Gale said of why he hasn't sought more high-profile Hollywood support for his cause.
He thinks a celebrity endorsement is "disingenuous" without active involvement. And as for the Jewish community, Gale says he never considered pursuing their involvement.
"I wasn't thinking this is a Jewish cause. I wasn't sure Jews were going to have a place in their heart for children affected by HIV/AIDS, not because they're not compassionate, but they usually give to causes specific to Israel or something someone in the community is affected by," Gale said.
But if Hollywood Heart represents anything, it is survival. When the camp began 14 years ago, kids were dying from one summer to the next. Now, they are planning to live.
Stephon Cooperawls no longer takes meds daily. His viral count is so low he only needs his medication once every four months.
He says Camp Pacific Heartland changed his life because he is more open about his illness. He recently told his girlfriend of five months and her family that he has HIV.
"They know who I am, and they accept me," he said.
Cooperawls, a lovely singer, is enrolled in the music workshop at the arts camp. He wrote a song called "I've Grown," which he sang for me a cappella:
"I've been here/at Camp Heartland/for 10 years y'all/for 10 years y'all
And now I'm a man/with less fears y'all/with less fears y'all
I'm 17/with HIV/with less tears y'all/with less tears y'all."
I held back my own tears as he sang.
"I'm proud I have HIV," he said before he walked away. Pointing at the dining room, he added, "I would take it away for them, but I probably wouldn't take it out of my system, just because I've been living with it for so long and I'm happy with myself. I love myself. It just doesn't offend me."
For more information about Camp Pacific Heartland, The Movie Team, and Hollywood Heart, call (818) 260-0372
Images: Hollywood Heart founder David Gale (far right) and staff pose for Camp Pacific Heartland's themed photo booth. Photos courtesy Camp Pacific Heartland and Camp Hollywood Heart, Danielle Berrin hangs out with DeVonte at Camp Pacific Heartland's MTV Dance Party