By: Ruth Osorio, Guest Blogger
Summer camp is about stories.
Sure, it’s also about camp fires, archery, arts and crafts, and spending time in nature. But stories are what make camp such a special place for so many children and young adults.
Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area’s Youth Haven Summer Camp is a prime example. The kids spend one week—free of any cost—at a Mar Lu Ridge in Frederick County, MD, which overlooks the valleys and hills of West Virginia and Maryland. Surrounded by beautiful scenery, the campers spend the week rock-climbing, making tie-dye shirts, and performing in a talent show. But what makes the week especially unique is that campers find a community where they can tell their stories without fear or shame, free of stigma. You see, at Youth Haven, every single camper is affected by HIV/AIDS, either as a patient themselves or as a sibling or child of a loved one infected by HIV.
This August, ten campers and four junior counselors—teenagers who have been campers before and return as mentors—attended Youth Haven camp. The campers spent the week having fun, sharing stories, and creating life-long bonds with other young people. At Youth Haven, the campers are not defined by their relationship with HIV; and yet, it is their experiences with HIV that bring the campers together.
Few others understand the obstacles and barriers people with HIV face—medically and socially. Research consistently shows that HIV-related stigma can impact the physical and emotional health of those affected by HIV. Not surprisingly, research also demonstrates the positive impact of summer camp for youth affected by chronic conditions. One study remarks that summer camp for those impacted by HIV/AIDS empowers youth to feel a sense of belonging, have fun without worry, and learn new skills and knowledge.
During one activity at Youth Haven Summer Camp this year, the campers were led in a walking meditation. They were asked what they liked about themselves and what they wanted to work on. Then, campers walked mindfully while thinking about their answers. Camp visitors were charmed by one of the younger campers. Displaying great focus, he walked back and forth, chanting for all to hear, “I am kind. I am funny. I want to work on focusing.” After the activity, another camper asked why he had said his meditation aloud—and so loudly! The young camper replied, “I have to say it out loud if I want to believe it!”
At Youth Haven camp, youth are encouraged to believe in themselves from Day 1. Dara Yahya, Program Manager of Youth Haven Camp, insists that “campers don’t usually make bad decisions; they make the best decisions for who they are and what they know at the time.” Instead of disciplining campers when they act out, Dara trains her counselors to discover the root of the struggle and works with campers to find a solution.
One day at camp, a camper had been pushing back against her counselors. When Dara asked the camper why, the camper insisted that she didn’t know. Dara then shared that many times we have conflict with people who we are most like, and challenged the young woman to spend the rest of the week finding out which counselor she had the most in common. The camper took Dara’s challenge seriously, asking the counselors questions and learning about their lives and recording it in her camp journal. Realizing she and the staff weren’t all that different from each other, the camper bonded with her counselors and had a wonderful week at camp.
The moment campers step off the bus they are treated with respect, care, and support. Thanks to the caring counselors who volunteer an entire week, this extraordinary camp is possible. They set a foundation that encourages youth to share their stories of childhood ups and downs. The stories bring the campers and counselors together, creating a community that creates new stories– stories of friendship, fun, adventure, support, and connection.