For most kids summer camp is that one time of year when their backyard fantasies and lightning-bug dreams become a reality. It's the one week when they are allowed to wear pajamas to the dinner table and eat popcorn for breakfast and are obligated to dance around the table before they've cleaned their plate. Every child should get the chance to experience the simple pleasures of summer camp. All summer long the squeals of laughter and cries over skinned knees can be heard from all over this country. But for the kids at Camp Starlight, it is nothing short of magic.
For 15 years Camp Starlight has created a summer haven for kids who are affected by HIV. Whether they are HIV-positive themselves or have felt the hardships of a parent or family member living with the disease, these children all travel to camp with something truly worth escaping: HIV stigma.
While the physical location is close to Salem, Ore., the majestic, wooded landscape of Camp Starlight transforms into something closer to a fairytale land when camp is in session. Each day is filled with repeat-after-me songs, archery, canoeing trips and horseback rides. No matter what they came with (and sometimes it isn't much), every child is given everything they need to make this one week nothing short of perfect.
As the founder of The Needle Prick Project, the duality of this heartbreakingly beautiful summer camp piqued my interest. Although I was aware of the far-reaching effects of HIV stigma, the impact that the disease has on today's youth was one effect that I had yet to explore. So my sister and I packed our bug spray, a pack of Band-Aids, a box of crayons and our camera equipment and headed west to see what Camp Starlight is all about.
I will admit my predisposition when arriving at camp. I expected that when the kids arrived, I would be overwhelmed by emotions and flooded with just the right words to capture this very special environment. As I began to put the campers' clothes into their temporary homes and wash their hands before dinner, I kept waiting for the feelings to bubble up. I might have even tried to force a sentimental wave or two, but it never really happened.
Why? Because these kids are just like any other campers spending a week away from strict bedtimes and mandatory vegetables. It doesn't matter that a common thread binds them together in the Oregon forest. For this week their favorite camp song or ice cream flavor or whether they want to swim or canoe is what defines them, not the sad story that leads them there. Every other week out of the year, Camp Starlight is known as a camp for kids who are affected by HIV, but when camp is in session, it's just camp.
While this was a wonderful discovery, I was a camp counselor on a particular mission. And while I fell in love with each and every camper, these children and their experiences are sacred only for the sake of leaving the experience ordinarily extraordinary. However, I still was looking for a way to capture the magic. With a name like Camp Starlight, all I had to do was look up to find just what I was searching for, but the real stars were much closer to the ground.
It takes nothing short of a movement to create an environment where children can discuss HIV, if they choose to do so, in a safe and nonjudgmental place, free of the weight that HIV stigma carries. The camp organizers, staff and counselors work all year to create this singular week of stigma-free, majestic bliss. Each year producing the camp session seems like an almost-impossible task.
From the endless fundraising to making sure that each counselor understands the gravity of their role, the leadership behind Camp Starlight works tirelessly to produce the impossible and make sure that each camper has what they need, both emotionally and physically. No matter what shade of bleak the child's background may be (and it can be extreme), the people at Camp Starlight make sure that there is nothing left to be wanted.
As I recall my memories from Camp Starlight, I have no sob stories to give you about the hardships that these children face in the shadow of HIV. That is because the people of Camp Starlight have created a place where these kids get to live the life that HIV robs them of. The emotion I had expected only came once the last camper had turned in for the night. The counselors would gather around the campfire in front of the painted wooden stage. Drinking endless coffee and eating leftover pastries, we'd share an unspoken bond built from the simple joy that had transpired throughout the day. The other counselors' weary but happy faces would gaze back at mine, and all of a sudden it would make perfect sense: The pain and hardship that these children endure year round had never really left, but for this one week it was the counselors' burden to bear. And we did so happily.
HIV is often thought of as an adults-only club. Many people will carelessly spout language that aims to stigmatize adults living with the disease, neglecting to realize that their words trickle below the 18-and-up crowd. But whether we are discussing someone who is 17 or 70 years old, the moralizing over who "deserves" it more is what continues to further stigma. The truth is that no one deserves HIV or the effects of HIV stigma.
The children at Camp Starlight shouldn't need special treatment, and their stories shouldn't weigh more heavily on your heart than those of anyone else whose life has been affected by HIV. Just like anyone else, they should be considered for who they are (no matter how bratty or sweet that may be), not for their HIV status.
But what every child deserves is a week where real life is abandoned, costumes aren't just for Halloween, and every day involves a cannonball.
To learn more about Camp Starlight, click here.
The Needle Prick Project is a video, photo, and editorial project designed to elicit a conversation about what it means to be HIV-positive today. We all fear the prick of the needle, but it's the medicine we need. Get pricked!