Fourth of July @ Camp Sunburst; the nation’s first therapeutically designed summer camp program for children and families living with HIV/AIDS

My car was jammed full of clothes donated to the campers as I drove from Tacoma, WA to Livermore, CA for my second year as a youth counselor at Camp Sunburst. I was accompanied by my girlfriend, Melissa McMahill, who was serving her 10th year as the Activities Director for the camp. (Ryan Harmon and Melissa McMahill are pictured below.) Our camp counselors and administrative staff are volunteers who take time away from work and family to be there for the children. Most counselors have been personally affected by HIV/AIDS and come to heal as well as lead.

Ryan Harmon & Melissa McMahill

This year, I was placed in the same cabin as last with the early teen boys ages 12 to 14. I was happy to see all my returning campers. Last year, one of my campers arrived without a sleeping bag or bedding for his bunk. This year I brought him a pillow and sheets with a pattern of soccer balls, baseballs, and footballs. He loved them and was touched that I brought them just for him.

Many children and teens at Camp Sunburst aren’t just fighting the disease but struggle with the powerful stigma that continues to surround HIV/AIDS – a stigma so strong that their HIV/AIDS status at all times must be kept confidential from the public. I can’t use campers’ real names because many of their parents keep their HIV status a closely guarded secret – a secret that weighs heavy on many of our children. This issue of privacy is particularly important for HIV-positive youth who may experience rejection, discrimination, and/or violence if their confidentiality is breached.

Before volunteering at Camp Sunburst, I couldn’t have imagined the challenges faced by a teenager who is told that they were born with HIV. It’s not uncommon for newly diagnosed teens to try and make the news go away by ignoring it. Unfortunately, attempting to ignore their HIV status often leaves them feeling lonely and depressed. At Camp Sunburst, these youth find a safe haven among peers and are able to share their feelings without the fear of discrimination.

Camp Sunburst was founded around a therapeutic creative arts program using performance, music, written word, dance, and other art based programming to aid in the psychological, emotional, and spiritual well-being of the individual. This year was especially fun for me, besides following my campers up and down the California hills, I was asked to lead the improvisation program because the longtime improv facilitator wasn’t able to attend camp. I grew up on stage, in plays, and had a childhood full of improv.

I was able to teach the children some great improv games that use imagination and wonder to help build self-confidence. One game we played was Mirrors, where participants pair up to mimic each other’s movements and facial expressions- like looking into a mirror. This game helps participants develop mirroring skills, which can lead to higher emotional sensitivity and deeper empathy.

My week as a counselor ended as the MC for the camp’s unique talent show called Messengers of the Heart. The campers are encouraged to express themselves freely without fear of judgement. This year’s show was especially emotional as it included a brief memorial for a young adult, a long time camper, who passed away earlier this year.

The camp has several AIDS Name Quilts bearing the memories of those campers, counselors and parents that have died over the years. The quilt honors the history of AIDS among children in the United States and serves as a great reminder of how far medical research has come over the last 30 years and the impact this disease has had on children and their families.

Each year, camp begins with a quilt ceremony which is very moving and often brings up a wide range of mixed emotions. Emotions that slowly well-up for my girlfriend, Melissa. We circle around the quilt in silence as it is unfolded by the oldest teen campers. Campers and volunteers are then invited to call out the names of loved ones who have passed from the virus. I see Melissa, my girlfriend, on the other side of the circle, clasping the hands of the campers next to her. She stands in  reverent silence. Until she calls out, “Jay, John, and Levi.” Her parents’ and brother’s names sink in my gut almost as fast as the tears well-up in her eyes. The campers hold each other’s hands, comforting one another as some call out names of their own. Melissa was only a young girl when her hemophiliac father contracted HIV/AIDS from a blood transfusion. Having lived with HIV-positive parents, this disease has deeply affected her. She returns to camp, year after year, to help facilitate a fun, accepting, and therapeutic environment for children living through similar challenges. I’m proud to be here with her. (the quilt ceremony is pictured below.)

Camp Sunburst AIDS Quilt Ceremony

At Camp Sunburst, we do everything we can to show these kids love and care. We celebrate their talent at the show, encourage them to reach higher at the rock-wall, teach some to swim in the pool, and share good times over meals.

Mostly, it feels like any other summer camp with children playing, laughing, and running around, until my camper cuts his foot because the hand-me-down shoes he arrived in, don’t fit. His toe is bleeding. I put on the gloves from the first-aid kit I’m required to carry, stop the bleeding, and put a Band-Aid on him. Afterwards, I sanitize my hands and everywhere blood may have dropped. As I take the gloves off to discard, I’m reminded this is a special camp- a camp that gives kids an opportunity to just be kids and feel free from discrimination and stigma.

I joke about how fast my camper is growing and that he needs to lay off on the Miracle-Gro. I take him to the pile of donations to see if we have a new pair of shoes that will fit better. Many volunteers arrive with cars full of donated clothing and necessities. Our campers enjoy ‘shopping’ for shoes and swimsuits to use and take home.

Camp Sunburst was founded shortly after the first child in the United States was diagnosed with AIDS in 1982. At that time, children born with HIV were not allowed in schools. Today, 80% of the children living with HIV/AIDS in the United States are living healthy, productive lives because improvements in medications have made it possible for these youth to live beyond adolescence and into adulthood.

In the spring of 2013, Sunburst Projects conducted a Needs Assessment throughout Northern, CA to better serve HIV/AIDS transitional-aged youth.

Key findings of the needs assessment included the following:

  • 50% of individuals need transportation to medical appointments
  • 60% lack family support
  • 90% of youth feel they need help transitioning into adult medical care
  • 100% feel they need leadership and mentorship programs
  • 100% feel they need more outdoor activity groups and programs

As a continuum of care, and to adapt to the changing needs of youth living with HIV/AIDS, Sunburst Projects, has implemented services to address the challenges all adolescents face – peer identification, sexuality, the drive for independence, as well as HIV-related health care issues. Transitional youth services implemented also support adolescents living with HIV when they face the challenge of moving into adult health care services once they turn 19.

I feel privileged to be able to give back to the world in such a personal and meaningful way. I’m counting the days until we get to return to camp in 2017, and I hope that sharing my experience will inspire others to join us in volunteering and donating to this important cause. One hundred years from now the world will be a better place because we made the difference in the life of a child!

To learn more about Sunburst Projects click here.

Ryan is a Technical Project Manager based in Tacoma, WA.