Safe Haven campers on Martha’s Vineyard for 17th year

Campers Shay and Khadijah catch up at the picnic. At the request of camp organizers only first names are used to protect the privacy of campers. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

An exuberant group of young Safe Haven campers and counselors piled off the ferry in a cold wind Saturday afternoon, bringing high hopes for a week of carefree fun and warm friendship on Martha’s Vineyard. Ranging in age from nine to 18 and hailing from New England, Philadelphia, and the United Kingdom, all the youngsters are living with HIV.

Safe Haven, created here in 1994 by Island teacher Tony Lombardi and David Butler, a health educator from Western Massachusetts, continues its original mission of providing a respite to young people whose lives are touched by AIDS. Now as then, acceptance, community, and caring are the camp’s hallmarks.

Today the Safe Haven Project operates a second camp in Ashville, N.C. A third is planned for North Dakota. The organization’s reach extends to Ghana where it promotes health and community services, and it has begun an exchange program with a similar group in the U.K.

The campers settled into the Manter Memorial Youth Hostel in West Tisbury, and then began six days packed with action, variety, and laughter. Sunday’s annual picnic, hosted by James Parquette and the Martha’s Vineyard Harley Riders, featured an all-you-can-eat cookout and roaring motorcycle rides around town.

A band of dedicated counselors, nurses, volunteers, and Vineyard camp director Mike Cocquyt kept things moving and watched over the youngsters early this week. The campers danced, cooked, played ball, explored the African American Heritage Trail, watched movies, and rode the Flying Horses. They visited the Gay Head Lighthouse and took time out on the beach to remember campers who have died. Today the group heads to Woods Hole for a Coast Guard visit and aquarium tour. Tonight it’s Felix Neck, tomorrow the FARM Institute, and the annual talent show. A first this year was a fundraiser at the Simon Gallery in Vineyard Haven on Tuesday night.

The Harley Riders head a list of community groups, businesses, and individuals that keep the camp thriving. The Harley members serve meals. Linda Jean’s, Fella’s, Doug Reid, and Beth Kramer and others provide hearty dinners. Marvin Jones has breakfast and lunch duty. Jocko McCarthy drives the bus. Stores donate food and supplies, volunteers time and skills, and many send treats. Establishments open their doors to the kids. As he does each year, Mike Santoro, managing partner of Season’s Restaurant in Oak Bluffs, organized a dance party at the adjacent Game Room. Some dozen restaurants from across the Island donated nearly 40 pizzas and Mr. Santoro treated the crowd to ice cream at Ben and Bill’s.

David Butler thanked Mr. Santoro for 17 years of support. He recalled his first visit to the Island, the first article in the Martha’s Vineyard Times by Wendy Brophy that introduced the new camp and brought Mr. Santoro’s first offer of help. And he acknowledged the Harley Riders and the others in the community who have never wavered in their support.

“Every April, like clockwork, they’re here,” he said.

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