08/16/2012 04:00 pm ET Updated Oct 16, 2012

Camp Haiti: Miraculous Moments for Children Living With AIDS in Haiti


I am visiting Camp Haiti, high in the mountains of Haiti, five miles north of Kenscoff. This camp -- a partnership between Worldwide Orphans Foundation, SeriousFun Children's Network and L'Envol -- is the first of its kind: a camp for children living with HIV/AIDS in Haiti.

The altitude is about 3500 feet, but it feels higher because the journey was so frightfully arduous. It took us thirty-five minutes to go five miles in our Toyota four-wheel drive vehicle with Stanley, our driver, artfully and safely managing the treacherous rocky roads and passing vehicles to reach camp, Kan Etwal. The height, the lack of guardrails, and some neck pain from the road travel, was unsettling, so I stopped looking down and kept my eyes instead on the spectacular view of the bay that fills the mouth of Haiti. It is so obvious on any map of Hispaniola, but to actually see that bay between the mountains is almost surreal. Tim, the SeriousFun camp consultant, recounted a moment on the bus trip for the campers, when they caught sight of this same view and having never seen it before, were overwhelmed with excitement and surprise. They had endless questions about what they were observing. Imagine, these kids who have lived all their lives in Haiti have never been tourists in their own country. They have never seen anything except their extremely poor surroundings in Port-au-Prince. I felt sad at this realization, but so pleased that we could give them this opportunity.

Almost a year ago, I met in New York with Jean-Marc Lefèvre, a Frenchman who has been on the board of a camp called L'Envol (in partnership with SeriousFun Children's Network) outside of Paris, France, which has provided camp for children with cancer. Dr. Gerard Lenoir, a founder of L'Envol and a pediatrician and dear friend of Jean-Marc dreamed of a camp for kids in Haiti. That dream seemed to slip away when Dr. Lenoir died. Steve Nagler from SeriousFun camps, our partner for camps in Ethiopia and Vietnam, introduced Jean-Marc to me and the rest is history. We had lunch and we promised one another that we would create a camp in Haiti for the summer of 2012. It was clear to me that Jean-Marc was hellbent on honoring Gerard Lenoir's vision. Because of the WWO camp successes in Ethiopia and Vietnam and my love for the Haitian children, I wanted camp as much as Jean-Marc did.

The odds were totally against us because there was no time, no funding, no structure or design, and nothing was in place on the ground in Haiti, except the psycho-social youth training programs of WWO in Kenscoff. Yet, here we are in Montcel, with a camp for 90 kids with HIV/AIDS for the next two weeks. Kan Etwal, Camp of Stars, named by the staff, has every structure imaginable found in all the other SeriousFun Global Partnership Program camps with Worldwide Orphans Foundation. It is a fantastic tour de force that came from a kernel of inspiration and passion of people who believe that children with chronic medical conditions and maybe even life-threatening diseases, deserve these deliriously happy and deeply life changing experiences.

Over the course of the day, I cried at every song, chant and wiggle today. I marveled at the intense energy of the staff and camp leaders. The staff wore funny wigs and hats, along with t-shirts they had designed that expressed the core values of camp. The kids were already smiling so hard that I could feel their faces hurting. Even while the utensils and plates clattered at lunchtime, the laughter and singing grew louder and louder. There was no let-up. It was maniacal and relentless and fabulous. Bravo, Bravissimo and Nous sommes heureux... and a ditty sung to the tune of "Sur le pont d'Avignon"... are in my head just from one night at camp. Voom Vere... Voom Vere... Voom Vere... loudly chanted by the boys in the green (vere) group was strong and driving. One of their counselors is a 48-year-old man who is the nature counselor. They know little about the nature of planet Earth, but he will dazzle them on Tuesday. When there was no singing, there was computer-produced Haitian music and the kids and counselors were dancing and swaying... and so was I!

The Super Camper celebration topped off the evening meal as one camper was chosen from the blue, yellow, green and red groups. Each camper sat in a crêpe paper-decorated chair that looked like a throne. The cheering was deafening and the Super Campers wore headbands with a star. I photographed them as if they were celebrities. Recognition is powerful for children and this moment was special for each of them. All the kids will have their moment this week and they will go home with memories that will be transformational.

The best moment for me was when the chant "Pran medikaman" (take medicine) started. Each group lined up on the porch outside the dining room for their medicine and within 11 minutes, all 41 kids had swigged down their pills with a short cup of water. The staff were proud because their organization and planning had been superb, but more importantly, they were dazzled by the pride each child felt about self-care. Adherence to this medication regimen is the heart of the challenge in effective HIV/AIDS care. These kids are growing in their self-esteem and a sense of pride about their HIV status and that is the underlying goal of camp along with a deep curriculum of the core values of respect (respe), security (sekirite), and love (renmen). You will see those words in Creole, on their camp t-shirts, and the skit at the campfire dwelled on these concepts in a very intense and creative way. Another skit involving a short legged table that was a pretend toilet made everyone hysterical with laughter and giddiness.

The camp was truly a success on this very first day. I am sure that the logistics will be a challenge, as is the case for all new camps. I had a look at the schedule this morning at breakfast and I marveled at all the activities. There were arts and crafts, drama, dance, music, free sports and carnival for the night activity. These are the exact same activities my sons have at camp back home. Indeed, they are the same activities we had when I went to camp in the 1960s. Camps are complicated and take enormous work and commitment, even when they are just the ordinary kind where there are no health issues or stigmatization. But each year glitches get ironed out and processes become smoother. In a few years, capacity will be increased to the point where the Haitian staff will run the camp on their own. The counselors are a very diverse group from St. Damien Children's Hospital, WWO, GHESKIO, and the Kenscoff community. Camp consultants come from SeriousFun (Canada, the U.S., and Italy). The campers come mostly from St. Damien (hospital for children in Port-au-Prince) and GHESKIO (an HIV/AIDS clinic in Port-au-Prince). I made a short speech in English which was poetically translated by Melissa Willock, Country Director for WWO, into Creole and my dearest wish was that I want camp to go on forever, year after year. Children living in adversity deserve a lifetime of camp!

As I write this, it is very late and there is a kind of quiet that makes me feel like there is no other world but this one. I hear no crickets or far-off city sirens and no dogs howling, which has been the nightly theme where we stayed in Kenscoff. I cannot sleep and I wonder why. I think my appreciation of the miracle of this camp keeps me up. I am overwhelmed with sentiments that touched me deeply all afternoon and evening until it was time to say goodnight at the campfire... their first campfire.