Between Swimming And Archery, This Camp Helps Kids Overcome The Stigma Of HIV/AIDS

Aug 4, 2017
Originally published on August 9, 2017 12:06 pm

Brad Higgins has been groundskeeper at Jameson Camp for 20 years. Back when he started, the subject of HIV and AIDS was so loaded with stigma that lots of people wouldn't talk about the disease, sometimes even within families.

Every summer the camp hosts one special sleep-away week for kids affected by HIV or AIDS. Each of those years, he would watch campers and their parents have tough conversations in the car before getting dropped off at the camp in Indianapolis.

That's because the camp has always had this rule: Campers need to know why they're here. And once children learned, they needed a stigma-free place to process it.

Some campers here are living with HIV/AIDS themselves. Others have parents living with it, or perhaps family members who have died from the illness and maybe "the rest of the family didn't know that," says Higgins.

Today, the stigma around HIV/AIDS may not be as profound, but it's still there.

So the camp has activities to help kids process their emotions. During arts and crafts, campers glue foam to paper, planning a chapter of their lives.

Chandra, 14, has come to the camp for three summers since her older cousin passed away from the disease. Her foam craft is a peace sign because, as she puts it, "I think everybody should spread peace and love."

Seventy or so campers, ages 7 to 17, come here from across the country to do archery, outdoor adventures in the creek, hide-and-seek, swimming, but it usually all comes back to talking about stigma. "Talking about how we approach people who have a disorder, or a disease, or anything else that's different," says Tim Nowak, Jameson Camp's program director.

"Quietly, for some people, it tears apart a family. Or, it tears apart emotional and mental health for people."

Nowak has worked here for more than a decade. He says since kids want to be at camp, you can tackle heavy topics in a new way.

Like, inside one wooden building where campers design an anti-bullying TV ad. Chase, 10, is one of them.

"People bully people with diseases like down syndrome and HIV, and all that type of stuff, even though they don't know what the meaning is," says Chase, who came to camp from Kentucky.

He adds that people should be given a second chance, even if they're different. His grandma has HIV. And, he says, he first learned that because of this camp. "We have to know to come to this camp because we talk about it."

To Chase, the camp is an opportunity for friends to have something in common and talk about it.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Every summer, a sleep-away camp in Indianapolis hosts a special week to welcome children with something in common - either they or a family member have HIV or AIDS. The program is free. There are a few dozen camps like this in the U.S. Peter Balonon-Rosen of Indiana Public Broadcasting visited to see how summer camp can help children process their struggles with the disease.

PETER BALONON-ROSEN, BYLINE: The unique week at the Jameson Camp began in 1995. HIV and AIDS were so loaded with stigma then, people wouldn't talk about it, even within their own families.

BRAD HIGGINS: Some of the kids would sit in the car. And their parent would tell them what was going on.

BALONON-ROSEN: Brad Higgins has been groundskeeper here for 20 years. He remembers seeing those conversations as kids got dropped off. It's because the camp had this rule. Campers need to know why they're here - that their lives are affected by HIV or AIDS.

HIGGINS: And it might be, you know, a parent or a sibling. And the rest of the family didn't know that.

BALONON-ROSEN: And once children learned, they needed a stigma-free place to process it. And today, it's the same deal. The stigma isn't as profound, but it's still there. So the camp has activities to help kids process their emotions.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Are y'all listening?

BALONON-ROSEN: This is arts and crafts. Campers glue foam pieces to paper, planning a chapter of their life.

CHANDRA: Oh, it's a peace sign.

BALONON-ROSEN: Fourteen-year-old Chandra's come here for three summers. We aren't using campers last names to protect their privacy. The Indiana teen also goes to another camp just for kids affected by HIV and AIDS.

CHANDRA: Our older cousin, he passed away from it.

BALONON-ROSEN: She says the chapter of her life she's designing is all about love.

CHANDRA: Because I think everybody should spread peace and love.

BALONON-ROSEN: About 70 campers, ages 7 through 17, come from across the country. It's summer camp, so there's archery, outdoor adventures in the creek, hide and seek.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Come on, go get him. Go find him. Tag him. Tag him.

TIM NOWAK: Quietly, for some people, it tears apart a family. Or it tears apart emotional, mental health for people.

BALONON-ROSEN: Tim Nowack is Jameson Camp program director. He's worked here for over a decade and says since kids want to be at camp, you can tackle heavy topics in a new way.

NOWAK: Really, like the big thing is stigma - talking about how we approach people who have a disorder or a disease or anything else is different.

BALONON-ROSEN: And the camp has activities for that, too. Inside a wooden building, campers design an anti-bullying TV ad. Ten-year-old Chase from Kentucky is one of them.

CHASE: So who wants to be bully and who wants to be the person who's getting bullied?

BALONON-ROSEN: They record their skit on an iPad.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: What's up, nerd?

BALONON-ROSEN: After, Chase says, these lessons are important.

CHASE: People bully people with, like, diseases like Down's Syndrome and HIV and all that type of stuff even though they don't even know what the meaning is.

BALONON-ROSEN: He says people should be given a second chance even if they're different. His grandma has HIV. He says he first learned that because of this camp.

CHASE: Because we talk about it and everything. We have to know why we're talking about it if it's not just a regular camp.

BALONON-ROSEN: How's it feel to know everybody's in the same boat as you?

CHASE: It feels good - feels like I can depend on anybody. Like, if I think anybody's really nice or like a friend, I know that they have - we have something in common.

BALONON-ROSEN: And he says that feeling that he's not alone is something he can take with him. Chase auditioned for a role in "Motown The Musical" and plans to land the part of someone who grew up to become an AIDS activist - young Michael Jackson.

CHASE: (Singing) When I had you to myself, didn't want you around. Those pretty faces always made you stand out in the crowd.

BALONON-ROSEN: For NPR News, I'm Peter Balonon-Rosen.

CHASE: (Singing) Oh, baby, give me one more chance. Won't you please let me back in your heart.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT YOU BACK")

THE JACKSON 5: (Singing) Oh, darling, I was blind to let you go. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.