It’s a sleep away camp. It’s free. And once a summer the Jameson Camp in Indianapolis hosts a session for campers with this in common: Either they or a family member have HIV/AIDS.
The goal? Use summer camp to help children process their struggles with the disease.
The unique camp session began in 1995. At the time, HIV and AIDS were so loaded with stigma, people wouldn’t talk about it. Even within their own families.
“Some of the kids would sit in the car and their parent would tell them what was going on,” says Brad Higgins, site manager at Jameson Camp, fighting back tears.
Higgins has been a groundskeeper at Jameson for 20 years. He says some kids may have never known their family member had HIV.
But the camp has always had this rule: Campers need to know why they’re here – that either they or someone they’re close to is directly impacted by the disease.
“And it might be a parent or a sibling,” Higgins says. “And the rest of the family didn’t know that.”
And once children learned, they needed a place a place to process. And that’s what the camp could provide.
“A time without that stigma,” Higgins says. “Or at least where they were sharing time with only other people who were dealing with that.”
And today, it’s the same deal. The stigma isn’t as profound, but it’s still there.
About 70 campers, ages 7 through 17, come from across Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and Illinois. This year, eight have HIV or AIDS. Everyone else has a family member who lives with or has died from the disease.
This week of camp is named Tataya Mato. It’s a Sioux phrase that staff say translates to “from the breath of the bear comes the rainbow.” In other words, from something scary can come something beautiful.
It’s summer camp. So there’s archery, outdoor adventures, a rope course and camping trips. And then there are also activities that staff design to help kids process their emotions.
Campers gather for arts and crafts. They glue foam pieces to paper, planning a chapter of their life.
“Ooh! It’s a peace sign,” says Chandra, a 14-year-old camper from Indiana.
Chandra has attended the camp for three summers. The teen also goes to another camp just for kids touched by HIV and AIDS.
“Our older cousin, he passed away from it,” Chandra says.
She says the chapter of her life she’s making in her project is all about love.
“I think everybody should spread peace and love,” Chandra says.
Camp staff hope the children living in the shadow of HIV will help each other.
“There are kids out there who are born into the disease but then there are kids who are born into the problem” says Tim Nowack, program director at Jameson Camp.
He’s worked at the camp over a decade. He’s seen how HIV and AIDS affect his campers.
“Quietly, for some people, it tears apart a family or it tears apart emotional and mental health for people as they watch others go through it and suffer,” Nowack says.
But, he says, since kids want to be at camp, they’ll open up to heavy topics in a new way.
“Really like the big thing is stigma,” Nowack says. “Talking about how we approach people who have a disorder or a disease or anything else that’s different.”
And the camp has activities for that, too. Inside a wooden building campers gathered at wooden tables design anti-bullying TV ads. Ten-year-old Chase from Kentucky is one of them.
“So who wants to be the bully,” Chase asks, “and who wants to be the person who’s getting bullied?”
Campers record their skit on an iPad. After, Chase says these lessons are important.
“People bully people with like diseases like down syndrome and HIV and all that type of stuff even though they don’t know what the meaning is,” Chase says.
The young camper comes to the Indianapolis camp from Kentucky. 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.
“We talk about it,” Chase says. “We have to know why we talk about it.”
And he knows everyone here is going through something similar.
“It feels good, it feels like I can depend on anybody,” Chase says. “And like if I think anybody is really nice or a friend we have something in common.”
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: Michael Jackson.
He croons a verse of “I Want You Back” by Jackson 5. And then runs off to “rest hour” in his cabin.
It’s summer camp, after all. Fun is exhausting.