November 19, 2008
Malibu camp offers respite and community for kids with HIV
(Page 2 - Previous Page)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
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