Safe Haven needs win at Casino Night
A lavish Casino Night coming up at the Oyster Bar Grill in Oak Bluffs this Friday, Jan. 18, aims to raise needed funds to help Camp Safe Haven continue to offer its annual spring session for youngsters affected by HIV/AIDS.
Established 14 years ago, Safe Haven provides a welcome respite for approximately 30 to 40 youngsters who range from kindergarten through high school age. Some are sick with AIDS; others have tested positive for HIV and are taking medications to fight off the development of symptoms. A number of campers have family members who are suffering from the disease or have died. Whatever their status, all have been deeply impacted by the deadly virus.
Camp co-founders Tony Lombardi, who is also camp director, and David Butler, a health educator from western Massachusetts, began the organization in 1994 with the mission of providing youngsters with a bright time-out from their daily lives of illness and worry. Stigmas that persist elsewhere are non-existent at Safe Haven. Here the children can indeed feel safe, free to be themselves and relate openly and spontaneously to those around them.
memorial to friends who died of AIDS. Photo by Ralph Stewart. Click photo for larger version.
Campers come from a number of states, referred by hospitals, social workers, clinics, and other sources. Their weeklong stay is packed with fun activities and outings, delicious hearty meals, and a camaraderie whose warmth stays with them, sustaining them long after camp is over.
All of this is provided for the children at no cost, thanks in large part to the generosity of many Vineyarders who, like the co-founders, are committed to seeing the youths have a happy experience here. A number of local businesses, individuals, and organizations pitch in, donating food, materials, activities, transportation, and field trips. The Martha's Vineyard Harley Riders also play a significant role, overseeing meal service, providing several feasts including a jolly cookout complete with spins on their motorcycles. Artists and performers drop by the Manter Memorial Youth Hostel, the camp's home base, to offer workshops and programs. Closely overseeing the campers are counselors, most of whom are college age.
"We receive a tremendous amount of support from this community," said Mr. Lombardi. "The Vineyard has given so many in-kind donations."
Although Safe Haven operates another one-week camp session in Maryland each summer, and plans to start up another in South Carolina, Mr. Lombardi says that only on the Vineyard has the community stepped up so strongly to help.
But more is needed to keep the camp afloat than the priceless Island hospitality. Mr. Lombardi writes countless grant proposals to cover the approximately $1,000 per-camper cost. The figure includes travel here, rent, supplies, and medications if a child does not bring his or her own.
But according to Mr. Lombardi, raising money for HIV/AIDS-related social and recreational programs, especially for school-age youth, is becoming harder and harder. "We have a need that persists and funding that is declining," he said.
Mr. Lombardi said that although the numbers of children with HIV/AIDS has dropped, there are still many children infected. Statistics show that the highest new infection rate is among 15- to 25-year-olds, and many young children remain at risk.
This is where the newly formed Martha's Vineyard Camp Committee and the Casino Night come in. The eight-member group, a diverse collection of camp supporters, was established just last fall. It includes two nurses who have worked at Safe Haven, two Martha's Vineyard Regional High School students who are junior counselors, and other adult volunteers who come to help year after year. Among them is Beth Kramer, former owner of Biga Bakery with her husband Doug Reid. Every April the couple donates heaps of delicious baked goods and throws a "Thanksgiving Dinner" for the campers and staff featuring turkey and all the fixings.
Libby Johnson became a counselor as a high school student here. Graduating from Babson College in 2006, Ms. Johnson returned to the Island and was thrilled to have chance to help Safe Haven. "Like everybody, I fell in love with it," she said. "It really embedded in me an awareness about HIV/AIDS and the importance of supporting the cause to combat it."
Her experience at Safe Haven inspired her to work with the AIDS Action Committee in Boston. She is on staff at the Martha's Vineyard Glassworks and delighted to report that the store donated five percent of its December sales to Safe Haven.
According to Mr. Lombardi, plans for the Casino Night evolved with the same serendipity that graces much of the Safe Haven experience. He and Mr. Butler met Bill Berggren, a businessman who arranges casino evenings for groups. It sounded like something that Vineyarders would enjoy, Mr. Lombardi said.
Then came Mike Gillespie, co-owner of the Oyster Bar Grill, who was so enthusiastic that he made his entire facility available to the camp free of charge and pledged that plenty of gourmet hors d'oeuvres will be served. "It's incredible how awesome Mike Gillespie has been," said Mr. Lombardi.
Another 13 local businesses generously agreed to sponsor the 13 gaming tables, helping offset the cost of bringing the glamorous event to the Island. Several high-quality items were donated for a silent auction and some 20 Vineyarders, many of them community notables, have volunteered to help. Serving staff at the restaurant have offered to work at a cut rate that night.
Ms. Johnson promises fun for all. Games will include Blackjack, Wheels, Let it Ride, and Roulette. Music and a Safe Haven slide show will play all evening. Mr. Lombardi said that all net proceeds will benefit the camp.
According to Mr. Lombardi, along with a fun event, the Casino Night will offer Islanders the chance to win some money at the popular games.
"But even if you don't win, Safe Haven will," said Mr. Lombardi. "Nobody loses."
Benefit Casino Night for Safe Haven Project, Friday, Jan. 18, 7:30 pm, Oyster Bar Grill, Circuit Ave., Oak Bluffs. $25 includes hors d'oeuvres, cash bar, gaming. For more information, call 508-627-7617 or 693-6600.