Safe Haven: Unique in many ways
With the roar of motorcycles, the aroma of food on the grill, and the cheers and giggles of exuberant youngsters, Camp Safe Haven kicked off its 14th annual session on Sunday. The unique camp for young people whose lives are impacted by HIV/AIDS, turns the Manter Memorial Youth Hostel in West Tisbury into their joyfully bustling home for one week every April.
Welcomed by Safe Haven's co-founders Tony Lombardi and David Butler, along with a band of dedicated counselors, the Martha's Vineyard Harley Riders, and many other volunteers, the campers, identified only by first names, get to take a healing time-out from difficult daily lives.
Sunday's cookout, complete with rides around the neighborhood with the Harley Riders on their gleaming motorcycles, is an annual event at James Paquette's West Tisbury farm. It sets the tone for a week filled with outings, special events, and most of all camaraderie with friends new and old.
Photos by Ralph Stewart
Food plays a major role, its abundance and variety a rare treat for many. Meals range from a Thanksgiving dinner with all the fixings cooked and served with love by Doug Reid and Beth Kramer, to chicken fingers and fries topped off with Linda Carroll's homemade ice cream sandwiches.
The Harley Riders adopt each year's campers as their own, greeting them at the ferry, escorting them to the hostel in celebrity style, and doing countless kitchen duties.
This year's 37 campers come from Boston, Providence, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Unlike many past years when the youngsters ranged from kindergarten through high school age, nearly all are teenagers.
According to Mr. Lombardi, this is a response to reduced funds for care to adolescents nationally. "We find the hole and we fill it," he said.
This year Mr. Lombardi stepped down as camp director, handing over the role to long-time counselor Megan Hallowell of Everettt. The change frees him to work with Mr. Butler on overall camp planning and educational programming in the U.S. and Africa.
"I love the kids because they're amazing," says Ms. Hallowell. "They're a gift and a challenge in the same sentence. We think we give them lessons but in reality they give us lessons. They're wise beyond their years."
Local generosity sets this camp apart. "Martha's Vineyard is a very unique place filled with people who have enormous hearts and are willing to help anyone whether they know them or not," says activities coordinator Mary Shea, an Island native who has volunteered since the camp began. "It makes me proud to have grown up here."
Businesses contribute food and volunteers prepare meals. Jocko McCarthy gives his time to bus the youngsters from activity to activity. Nurses offer their expertise, and every year Pam Benjamin conducts an art class. Facilities open their doors, including this year the YMCA Teen Center and the Boys and Girls Club. Islanders stop by with gifts and treats.
After making short work of a vast stack of pizzas donated by local eateries, the youths cavorted on the dance floor at Outerland Monday night, guests of owners Barry and Mona Rosenthal. Even after the big night out the youngsters would be ready Tuesday morning for a fishing trip to Duarte's Pond thanks to Janet Messineo and the Martha's Vineyard Surfcasters. The packed schedule includes a bicycle jaunt, karaoke, a movie night, and comfortable hang-out time. This afternoon, campers head for Aquinnah where, after drumming and storytelling by Wampanoag tribal members, they will share a thoughtful time at the annual ceremony of remembrance honoring a camper who died since last April.
All too soon camp concludes on Friday with Lainie Bonito's famous roast chicken feast and the annual talent show at the Grange in West Tisbury. Saturday morning the campers head home, carrying with them many warm memories.
"Safe Haven is more than a camp, it's really a philosophy," says Mr. Lombardi. "The power of one individual to create change in the world is unparalleled, and we've found many different ways to prove it."