Campers Courageous

Peter Hoffman and Keith
Peter Hoffman takes camper Keith out for a spin. Photos by Ralph Stewart

By Pat Waring - April 26, 2007

Laughter is often called the best medicine. Along with dozens of cookies, daily adventures, home-cooked meals, and lots of hugs, it was what kept 32 young Safe Haven campers smiling and sunny last week despite the cold, rainy weather. The camp for youngsters affected by HIV/AIDS took place for the 13th year at the Manter Memorial Youth Hostel in West Tisbury under the watchful eye of co-founder and director Tony Lombardi.

From their exultant arrival on April 13 when the Martha's Vineyard Harley Riders gave them a celebrity welcome and a motorcycle escort, to tearful farewells at the SSA dock last Friday morning, the children, ages 7 to 17, had a rare chance to leave their daily lives of illness, sadness, and stigma far behind. As one counselor remarked, they were able to enjoy their childhoods, at least for this one week.

Kristen Campbell with Patrick
Counselor Kristen Campbell with Patrick.

The hostel was alive with campers, 18 young adult counselors, and countless community friends and volunteers. Some came to help with meals, others ran recreational workshops or performed, brought food or gifts, or just came to visit, adding to the comfortable, neighborly atmosphere.

Both Mr. Lombardi and David Butler, a health educator from Western Massachusetts who co-founded the camp, expressed gratitude for the high level of community involvement that has grown over the years. Mr. Butler described how moved he was when he saw the number of cars parked outside, an indication of the many community members who had come to support the program.

"In 1994 I had a vision that the Island would adopt this program and it has truly happened," Mr. Butler said. "I had a vision of a safe community for the children and here we are. It's a real blessing to think it all came true. I'm very grateful to everybody and the kids are too."

Safe Haven has experienced its share of financial and logistical challenges since it began in 1994, but thanks to the steadfast determination of its founders, loyal contributors, and volunteers, it has endured. For some campers it has been a constant, a once-yearly bright, carefree time. This year's group included both first-time campers and others, like 16-year-old Damien, who came here as small children, and now are mature enough to be junior counselors.

Destiny and Dashan
Campers Destiny and Dashan share a hug.

Most counselors are college students, signing up for the camp stint because of interest in service. After the first camp, most are hooked, returning year after year.

Kristen Campbell, who will graduate from Boston College in May, has participated in nine sessions since learning about Safe Haven from Mr. Butler five years ago, and is struck by the fact that here the youngsters do not have to be concerned about being stigmatized due to their illness. "It's normal here and it should be normal everywhere," she said.

"Things like this have become more important than grades and things I learn in the classroom," said

Andrew deFeo, also a Boston College senior, was new this year. "I loved it. Every time I do service work in a new setting it opens my mind to new things, breaking down stereotypes and giving new reasons to be compassionate."

Claiming the distinction of "oldest counselor," at 45 Michael Horvath has lived with AIDS for more than a decade. A warm and soft-spoken man, he was particularly gentle and reassuring with the young campers. "The kids are amazingly well-behaved and I'm impressed," he said. "It doesn't get them down and they don't mope, they don't complain about meds. They plan their futures like any other kids."

Maurice enjoys a hearty laugh.

This year's counseling staff also included Vineyarders Eliza Jane Gowell, Sophie Lew, and Vina Lindley.

Days were action-packed with crafts classes, field trips, and performances such as an energized presentation of drumming and dance by Wampanoag Tribe members. The annual talent show was a high point, this year held at the Grange, thanks to the Martha's Vineyard Preservation Trust. Festive meals topped off each day: Doug Reid and Beth Kramer presented their annual Thanksgiving Dinner; Outerland hosted a dance party with pizza donated by several local eateries. Sharky's brought Mexican food; Dairy Queen offered to treat the whole group. James Paquet held his yearly cookout and Easter Egg hunt, even though it took place in his garage due to rain. Rosebuds sent balloons. Lainie Bonito of Linda Jean's cooked a chicken dinner, the PA Club contributed chicken fingers and fries, and the Harley Riders were on hand every evening to serve up all the youngsters' favorites.

Safe Haven runs on love, compassion, acceptance, and plenty of volunteer energy. Along with counselors and nurses (15 on the roster to ensure that at least one is always present) who work for free, friends of Safe Haven all across the Island look forward to camp week nearly as much as the young visitors do. Though the work can be hard and the emotions intense, those who lend a hand cite the satisfaction and inspiration they reap. As volunteers take time away from their routines, the camp becomes a haven for them as well, a place to slow down, live in the moment, give to others, and focus on what is most important.

James wowed the audience with his talent.

Lenny Clark, who works at Kaleidoscope Tattoo in Vineyard Haven, felt moved to help this year after learning about the camp from Mr. Lombardi. "It really just felt right," he explained, having arranged major food donations from both Stop & Shop stores and Cronig's, as well as throwing a barbecue and providing dozens of temporary tattoos.

Dianna Stallone came from Northampton with her daughter Briana, 14. She helped with everything from crafts to meal preparation, while Briana spent time with the campers. "I wanted my daughter to have the experience of giving back," Ms. Stallone explained.

Mary Dacey of West Tisbury donated homemade fudge brownies and a big tub of vanilla ice cream for the annual birthday celebration.

Heather Rynd came mornings to help chef Marvin Jones prepare breakfasts and Kati Alley took time off from her job at Tony's Market to bake several large pans of macaroni and cheese which she served for lunch. As always, Jocko McCarthy was a cheerful fixture at the camp, giving his time to drive the group to activities and events in the brightly painted bus donated by Island Transport.

Safe Haven
The Safe Haven campers arrived in style with a motorcycle escort by the Martha's Vineyard Harley Riders.

Campers come to Safe Haven through referral by hospitals in many states. The camp is offered completely free of charge. Mr. Lombardi said that thanks to the many donations of food, goods, and activities, as well as contributions of travel expenses from referring agencies, this year's camp was less expensive than some. Without these donations, he said, the camp would cost $30,000 to operate. Local fund-raising including a quilt raffle and a new 5K road race held on April 14 brought in revenue too.

Tony Lombardi
Camp director Tony Lombardi concentrates on a chess game with a camper.

Safe Haven is never far from the counselors' minds during the year, when some prepare activities or correspond with campers and other staff. Two Providence College counselors solicited donations from fellow students and local businesses, presenting every camper with a new backpack filled with gifts.

For Mary Shea, an Island native, camp is a significant and meaningful part of her life. Now the activities director for both the Vineyard and Maryland camps, Ms. Shea came to her first session as a camper when she was fighting cancer as a 14-year old. Now studying for a master's degree in social work at Salem State College, Ms. Shea takes time through the year to plan and schedule activities and events for upcoming camps.

Dashan, Sophie Lew, and Darin
Outdoor for the drumming are Dashan, counselor-in-training Sophie Lew, and Darin.

"We don't stress the sickness, we stress the wellness," said Mr. Lombardi, a special needs teaching assistant at Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, adding that even rainy weather had not slowed the camp down. Although a number of usual activities - fishing, a farm tour, a festive cookout, a beach trip - had to be cancelled, offers of new activities poured in to fill in the gaps. The campers played dodge ball at the Oak Bluffs School, had a dance party at The Island House, spent happy hours at the YMCA Teen Center and the game room at Seasons. Even just lounging around the hostel, playing board games, listening to music, and chatting with friends was a big hit.

"It's not only the activities, it's the camaraderie that the activities allow," said Mr. Lombardi. "That's the piece the kids are missing - the community."

The sun emerged on Thursday allowing the campers to cavort on the lawn and enjoy a drumming performance by students from Bridgewater State College. A somber note was struck when they took time out for a brief memorial. The annual Ceremony of Remembrance honors any campers who have lost their lives to AIDS since the previous meeting. A photo of William, a slender, 13-year old former camper with a thoughtful look who died in September, was propped on a music stand, surrounded by flowers. In contrast to the prevailing exuberance, the quiet moments were poignant with the sense of life's fragility, a sense only too familiar to these courageous children.

Along with the existing camps on the Vineyard and in Maryland, the founders hope to launch a new session in North Carolina where, they say, the need is great. The organization has held educational activities for students and Mr. Butler and Mr. Lombardi have traveled to Africa where they are promoting AIDS prevention education. Mr. Butler said another dream is to set up a clinic in Ghana, but funds are needed.

"There's so much more we want to do, he said, "There's a true need we want to meet."

Patrick and Dashan
Patrick (left) and Dashan get ready for a sweet birthday party treat.
Darin, at the table.
Patrick and Vina Lindley
Patrick with Vineyard counselor Vina Lindley.
Tamara and Maiesha
Tamara (left) and Maiesha, busy in the kitchen.
Dashan and Damien
Dashan (left) and Damien, on stage at the talent show.