Camp is happy sanctuary for kids with HIV

Wes Wood and camper Israel at the Ride Along and picnic hosted by the M.V. Harley Riders on Sunday, April 18. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

No matter how many pizzas, hotdogs, and ice cream cones get devoured, nor how many motorcycle rides, carousel spins, group hugs and dodge ball games bring shrieks of joy, the most important thing about Camp Safe Haven is community. Just ending its 16th annual April session last Friday night with a hearty chicken dinner and a bang-up talent show at the Chilmark Community Center, the camp gives youngsters affected by HIV/AIDS a place where they can relax and be themselves. It is a home away from home for youths who may not know such safety in their own homes, schools, and towns.

“I knew that what these kids were missing in their lives was community,” said David Butler, Safe Haven’s founder and CEO. “We built a community they would be welcomed to.”

Mr. Butler said the story of Ryan White — an Indiana youth with AIDS in the 1980s who was shunned by his hometown but warmly accepted in a neighboring community — moved him to begin Safe Haven. The generosity and hospitality of Vineyarders is an invaluable and integral aspect of the camp, he said. “They’re as loving and giving as they were the first year.”

Along with the Island camp, Safe Haven has offered AIDS education in high schools nationwide, run a camp in Maryland and now holds one in North Carolina, and lends volunteer help to programs in Ghana where AIDS is rampant.

Volunteers lend a hand

The camp springs into being each year with a spontaneity, energy, and serendipity all its own. Volunteers step forward; checks arrive; Island individuals, organizations, and businesses contribute food and supplies, open their doors, hearts, and arms to make the weeklong gathering memorable.

As they have every year, the Martha’s Vineyard Harley Riders met the campers at the ferry on April 17, giving them a roaring escort to the Youth Hostel in West Tisbury, headquarters for the week. The bikers hosted a cookout complete with motorcycle rides then donned gloves and aprons every night to serve dinner.

“These kids are special,” said Harley Riders president Mike Dow. “They’re like our family now.”

Mr. Dow, though grieving for his daughter Rachel who died in an automobile accident February 1, said the campers are bringing him some rare cheer.

“They make me grin,” said Mr. Dow. “It’s the things in life you give that somehow make this sadness a little better.”

Eight nurses worked free of charge to ensure 24-hour coverage for the campers who require daily medications and prompt treatment if illness occurs. Veteran camp bus driver Jocko McCarthy whisked the youngsters off on daily field trips. Chef Marvin Jones arrived at the hostel early every morning to cook up eggs, waffles, and home fries then was back to set out lunch.

Jeanie Pierson, Oak Bluffs Police Department Clerk and a16-year camp helper, has done everything from baking cookies and washing laundry to lining up talent and assistance.

Laughter and fun

This year the camp welcomed nearly 30 youngsters ages 12 to 17 from cities across the Northeast. More than half were returning campers, a tradition at Safe Haven where some come back year after year and become counselors-in-training. Although the camp is also opened to youth who are not infected themselves but have a family member with AIDS, this year’s campers were all HIV positive.

As the young people cavorted and laughed and ate their way through the week there was little sign they were carrying a serious, incurable, and much-feared disease. Like any group of kids they teased, played, made new friends, and marveled at new adventures.

All the activities were geared to building relationships, confidence, and self-esteem while being lots of fun. Campers expressed themselves by composing a letter to their HIV during a writing workshop, then showed their jaunty inner selves in a formal photo shoot with Times photographer Ralph Stewart. They hit the dance floor at the PA Club with DJ Jeff LaBell, an Oak Bluffs Police Officer, spinning the tunes. They crowded around a big table at Beadniks stringing necklaces and bracelets thanks to owner Stacy Hayden.

Thursday afternoon was every teenager’s dream trip to Oak Bluffs as Mike Santoro opened the Ryan Family Amusement’s Game Room for the campers and treated them to ice cream at Ben and Bill’s, and the Flying Horses donated ride after ride. There was a birthday dinner, a nighttime ramble at Felix Neck, recreation and movies at the Boys and Girls Club, and at The FARM Institute campers got hands-on education as they pitched in with chores.

Bravery, courage, and strength

Jermaine Lee, a slender, smiling dynamo from North Carolina kept a watchful eye on campers along with a band of dedicated young adult counselors. In his second year as Camp Director, Mr. Lee is HIV positive, and determined to serve others, especially young people touched by AIDS.

“These guys give me such inspiration,” Mr. Lee said. “I am inspired by their bravery, courage, and strength. I don’t know if I would have been able to cope with this emotionally if I was a teenager.

“Safe Haven reminds them of who they are — they don’t really need anything from me other than that.”

Missing this year were the familiar faces of Tony Lombardi and Mary Shea. According to Mr. Butler, Mr. Lombardi, who served as Island Coordinator and Program Director from the beginning, stepped down to take on new responsibilities at the YMCA. Counselor and Activities Director Ms. Shea also has a new job filling her time.

“We wouldn’t be where we are without Tony and Mary,” said Mr. Butler. “We miss them and they’ll always be part of Safe Haven.”

Dori Keller of Los Angeles, diagnosed HIV positive six years ago, was busy filming a documentary and is helping Safe Haven with its website, logo, and fundraising.

“It’s where you can be yourself and not be scared,” said Mr. Keller, summing up the camp experience.

Mr. Butler put it another way: “Freedom — emotionally, spiritually, and physically — is a common theme at all the camps. Safe Haven is not a place; it’s a state of mind.”