A Real-Life Dreamcatcher: One Woman Builds a Camp for Kids With HIV/AIDS

Dec 1, 2010
Jenny Inglee is a Los Angeles-based journalist and the Education Editor at TakePart.
Patty, Dan Schwartz and Gilberto, the winner of the Carl Piazzio Courage Prize 2010. (Photo: Ginny Fineberg)

Kids living with HIV are forced to come up with more courage every day than any child should ever have to muster.

As a volunteer and psychotherapist, Patty Hillkirk witnessed childhoods rife with struggle and illness.

She dreamed of starting a summer camp in Pennsylvania for children coping with HIV/AIDS, and she brought that dream to life. Little did she know that the camp would be just a beginning.

For the past 15 years, Patty and her army of volunteers have reached thousands of kids looking for hope and a place to feel less alone.  Patty's people have formed a community and created many year-round free programs for children and teens touched by the illness.

"The majority of the kids," Patty said, "have been coming to Camp Dreamcatcher for most of their lives. They always say to me, 'This is my family, there is where I feel normal.' "

One 19-year-old man has been attending the camp since he was very young and is now giving back as a camp counselor. When he was 5 or 6, living with HIV, he lost his mother to AIDS. He moved into a loving foster home. At about 9 years old, cancer took his foster mom. His foster dad remarried. A few years later, that wife also died of cancer.

Patty says, "Here he is, a teenager who has lost three moms and is dealing with HIV. He is an amazing young man."

The two stay in touch throughout the year and he attends the camp sessions and teen retreats.

Camp Dreamcatcher is most importantly a place where HIV-positive kids can let loose and just be kids.

Massage therapists are on site for the kids at camp. (Photo: Jen Baer)

There's hiking, boating, arts and crafts and all the activities kids hope for at a summer camp.

The staff and volunteers provide art therapy, music therapy, psychotherapy, movement therapy and a safe space where kids can talk about loss and grief.

"Most of the kids grew up in families where it's a secret, and you're not allowed to talk about it," Patty says. "When they start thinking about their own life and getting a job and going to college, how are they going to deal with that secret?  What are the choices they will make?"

The stress of the secret heightens the fear of being rejected. "We've had kids who've been beaten up, bullied and have had to drop out of school."

To counter the prejudice, Patty started Camp Dreamcatcher's Teen Speakers Bureau, made up of teens who were infected or affected by HIV. Speakers go out to middle schools, high schools, colleges and community groups and share their experiences coping with the illness.

Campers hang out on the big chair with Taj, one of the village chiefs. (Photo: Ginny Fineberg)

At first, Patty says, it felt risky and scary for the kids to put themselves out there. But the teens are met with acceptance, feel a sense of freedom, and are becoming leaders in their communities. "At the end of the talks, the students come up and hug them and show their support," Patty says.

Since the camp started 15 years ago, AIDS-related issues have claimed three children.

Camp Dreamcatcher honors and celebrates and grieves through Native American traditions. The staff "encourages all the kids," Patty says, "to get involved and share their feelings and memories of the kids we lost."

Another tradition is very special to the volunteers and campers: Each year, the kids paint or draw a wish on a log or a stick. On the Thursday night, at a campfire ceremony, the campers state their wish.

They can do it in silence or share their wish with words. Patty says, "It has turned into something very powerful."

For Patty, the volunteers and the campers, Camp Dreamcatcher has become a loving community and a refuge. The camp and retreats have impacted thousands of lives and will undoubtedly touch many more in the future.

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