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.  

Volunteering for the whole family

At Good Done Great, we have the pleasure of seeing some of the world’s most recognizable brands do some really great philanthropy. I had been looking for an opportunity to introduce my 11 year old daughter, Lilly, to a good volunteer event. Luckily, we had been speaking to Belk corporation and heard about their cleanup and restoration day at the Cooper River Marina in Charleston.


It was all set up to be a fun, fast-paced morning divided into three projects:

Pick up litter in the marsh and along the shoreline. Rubber gloves, litter pickers, and trash bags will be provided. Trash and recyclables will be separated and routed to the appropriate disposal sites.

Bag oyster shells for a reef to be built at the Cooper River marina. Heavy lifting is involved, so it didn’t seem like this was a good opportunity for Lilly and her friend. The purpose of the project was to provide substrate for the recruitment of juvenile oysters and to restore valuable oyster habitat in areas where the population is depleting or lacking. Through this community-based restoration program, habitats for other animals are enhanced, estuarine water quality is improved, and the general public is educated about the importance of oysters in the ecosystem.

Building an oyster reef at the Cooper River Marina. Heavy lifting was involved (about 300 bags at 25lbs each), and there was no way that Lilly was up for this. Pre-filled bags are transferred from person to person from the loading area down to the build site where the reef is to be constructed.

In the end, we decided that the litter pick-up was perfect for me, and my two 11-year old helpers!

What we loved about it:

– Great informational sessions from the Charleston County Parks & Rec (see video), and from the SC Department of Natural Resources (see video).

– Fun to see how corporations engage their brands and partnerships in order to make a difference in the world (see video).

What kind of Impact did we make:
Over 30 bags of trash
500 bags of oysters at 30 pounds each
15,000 pounds of oyster shells to create a new reef
200,000 oysters will spawn
500,000 gallons of water will get filtered per hour

How do we rate the overall volunteer experience?

(check out our video)

All in all, this was a great way to introduce the family to volunteering. We not only had a unique experience that we will remember for a very long time, but we made a difference that has lasting impact.

(Volunteer Value:  B+)

A Good Done Great Personal Story: Bikers Show A Softer Side for the Kids

I never knew by riding a motorcycle that it would lead to getting so involved in my community. Three years ago, I joined a motorcycle rights organization (Tacoma Chapter ABATE of Washington), because I thought it was a worthwhile cause to work hand-and-hand with legislators making the laws that affect me and all my fellow riders. I am now Secretary of my chapter, and I help plan and organize all kinds of events that support our organization, but better yet, the community.

Every year we do a Toy Run in December that benefits our local women and children’s shelter, the YWCA of Tacoma. We collect toys over a few months, then we pile them all together and ride down to the shelter to deliver the goods. With Santa leading the way on his bright green trike, followed by a hundred bikers hauling toys on holiday-theme decorated motorcycles, we roll into the shelter where hundreds of kids await us. Their bright smiles and clapping and cheering provide one of the greatest senses of joy I have ever felt, well worth the months of work and planning it takes to organize it each year. The shelter director tells us how so many of the kids come from abusive homes and can be very afraid of men, but seeing these big burly bikers come in with smiles on their faces and toys in their hands helps continue the healing process for all those kids who have suffered so much.


If it’s not one of my chapter’s rides, we support other motorcycle groups and their kindness efforts: from collecting food for homeless shelters to raising money for cancer awareness. Our chapter sponsors a two-mile section of highway that we go and clean up twice a year. I’ve been on the side of the road, covered in sweat from hours of work, and people make a point to yell “THANK YOU” out their windows as they speed past at 60mph. It’s a great feeling, especially when you are covered in grime from the side of the road.


I’ve met some amazing people in my adventures on my motorbike, and there are so many causes bikers support –  they are truly some of the nicest, most generous people you’ll ever meet.  Just goes to show, whether you’re in a suit or wearing leather, in a car or on two wheels, there is no wrong way to give!

Sarah is a Web Designer for Good Done Great based in Tacoma, WA. 

A Good Done Great Personal Story: Discovering the Rewards of Skill-based Volunteerism

I dabbled with volunteerism for years without finding a cause that I was truly passionate about and without feeling like I was having much impact. That changed with a phone call in October of 2006. I was working as a senior counselor for a public relations firm when I found myself on the phone with a man who said he was calling on behalf of the parents of Emily Keyes. I knew Emily’s name well because she had been the focus of both national and local media during the past few days. Emily had been shot and killed in what would become known as the Platte Canyon Hostage Crisis. The man explained that Emily’s parents were seeking help from our firm to manage the media surrounding the tragedy and to help develop a strategy for a Foundation in Emily’s name. He went on to say Emily’s parents had decided to call this future foundation the “I Love U Guys” Foundation, because those were the words that Emily texted to her parents after she had been taken hostage but before she was killed. They didn’t currently have a budget for this undertaking and were looking for our firm to take them on as a pro bono client. My heart ached – it ached for Emily’s parents who had lost a child in the most horrific of circumstance and wanted to do something to prevent that from happening to other parents, and it ached because I knew our firm was not in a position to help them.

I Love U Guys Foundation

As I was delivering the unwelcome news that our firm had already committed all our pro bono resources for the year, it occurred to me that I could be the resource. I was one of the firm’s crisis management specialists, and I had a great deal of experience in strategy development. I explained how I could help by volunteering my time, met with the Keyes family that weekend and spent the following weeks and then months helping the family work with the media and then doing strategy development and media relations for the “I love U guys” Foundation. I went on to become a board member for the foundation, which has done a great deal to address and prevent violence in our schools. With that experience, I was hooked on both volunteerism and charitable giving. I had experienced how much impact my time and training could have on individuals and society and there was no going back.

My experience with the Keyes family and the “I Love U Guys” Foundation was later instrumental in my acceptance into Leadership Denver, a program that provides an opportunity to explore and learn how to address the biggest social issues facing Denver with 55 peers from the private, public and nonprofit sectors.

I’ve served on a number of boards and worked on many initiatives since graduating form Leadership Denver. My current passion and the focus of my own volunteerism and charitable giving is food security. I currently volunteer and donate because I want everyone to have enough to eat…locally, nationally, globally.

Christina Bowen is Good Done Great’s Vice President of Strategic Partnerships based out of Denver, CO. 

A Good Done Great Personal Story: Offering Furry Friends a Forever Home

A couple of years ago, after personal losses left a void, I knew it was time to begin distracting myself with positive activities that would make a difference in the world…or at least make a difference to someone. Forever an animal lover, I feel incredibly blessed to have become immersed in the world of animal rescue.

I am also incredibly lucky to volunteer for a remarkable rescue organization in Denver called PawsCo—a 100% volunteer-run organization that takes a comprehensive approach to reducing pet overpopulation through spay/neuter, pet food drives, and—the part of the organization, near and dear to my heart­—adoption through fostering homeless animals.

Personally, I have been fostering animals for a few years and, together with my team of two- and four-legged kids, we have re-homed more than 80 wonderful, cute, crazy, smart (and sometimes not so smart ;), adorable and sweet dogs, and nearly a dozen kitties.

The people I volunteer with are committed, compassionate, smart, and fun professionals. Without exception, I am consistently inspired and motivated by this amazing group of animal lovers. PawsCo is run like a business—efficient, organized, process-oriented, resourceful, and fun! We stick to our mission and are privileged to say that in 2014 alone we rescued 414 animals, and found homes for all—including those who were sick, old, or had behavioral issues that needed attention.

TobyMany of the animals we pull from shelters are considered “unadoptable” and scheduled for euthanasia. Two dogs I pulled recently—Toby (pictured first), a black lab/boxer mix, and Chaco (pictured below), a big ol’ chocolate lab/grizzly bear/teddy bear mix—were literally about to be euthanized. Today, I am thrilled to tell you they are well-loved members of wonderful forever families!

While 80 lives saved is a drop in the bucket compared to the millions of sweet souls who are extinguished every year, I am often reminded of one of my favorite quotes: “Saving one animal won’t change the world, but it will change the world for that one animal.” Amen to that.

Dominique Leupi is a Strategic Account Manager for Good Done Great based in Denver, CO. 

Not only does Dominique support animals’ rights but so do Good Done Great’s clients. Good Done Great partners with PetSmart and PetSmart Gives Back which has contributed over $2 million dollars to the local community and partners with over 200 non-profits throughout the United States and Canada. 


A Good Done Great Personal Story: Early African Travels Influence Future Giving

Ever since traveling to Zimbabwe as a teenager in 1990 for the first time, I have loved Africa and its people. Our family loved it so much, we wound up purchasing an old cattle ranch and have spent the last decade or so transforming it into a wildlife preserve, reintroducing the many species of game wiped out years ago to make way for cattle. Located in a highly drought-prone part of the country, with only 12-14 inches of rain a year, the game on the property and the many neighboring communities desperately needed access to water!

Thousands of local Shona and Shangaan people struggled to irrigate their crops, water their livestock, and have clean drinking water. Our family was able to provide and see firsthand what a new borehole or well, with a functioning diesel or solar pump could do to improve the lives and sustainability of so many.

Shona and Shangaan Children

As such, for the last several years, we have led our local Mt. Pleasant Presbyterian Church group on Water Missions International’s annual Walk for Water event in Charleston, SC. It is amazing to think that $10 can provide an African child with clean drinking water for life, and that many of us will spend that on coffee in just a day. It was great fun to participate with the entire family knowing the monies raised would have such a direct impact on the livelihood of people who lack even the basic necessities in life.

Michael and His Family

Michael Schenck is a Senior Sales Executive based in Charleston, SC. He is pictured with his wife, Wynne, and daughters Lizzie Lane and Dailey. 

A Good Done Great Personal Story: There is No Wrong Way to Give

“No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” – Aesop

When I walked down the nearly deserted streets of downtown Asheville with my Dad in the 1970’s and 80’s (really until he retired!), I would most definitely hear: “Here comes a good, good man. Hey Mr. Ivory! (our last name was Ivey!).” or “This man should be the mayor!” or “Young lady, you don’t know what a gem you have in your Dad”. There were many handshakes and claps on the back. These affectionate greetings weren’t coming from bankers in grey business suits or attorneys rushing to the courthouse, they came from the man sitting on a blanket in the town square, the custodian of my Dad’s building, or the fellow camped out at the counter at the local diner drinking his tenth cup of coffee. These are the people my father chose to care for, to help get through another day. He knew their names, their stories, and they knew his. He still does.

Parker with her Father, GeorgeParker pictured with her father, George (c.1976)

My Mom’s way of giving back was just as powerful, but different from my Dad’s. One of my first memories of helping others was during the grand opening of “Our Place,” a shelter for children in crisis. I remember helping setup the rooms for the kids that would eventually seek refuge there. My mom served on their board and was instrumental in getting “Our Place” opened. The organization has grown since 1975 to include several residential, outpatient, and foster care programs and facilities. Another childhood memory involved helping sort clothes at the Next-to-New shop where gently used items are sold at a discount. My mom also gave her time to individuals in need. A mentally disabled friend relied heavily on my mom to help her balance her checkbook and prepare her taxes. My mom went on to a late-in-life career as a grant manager for the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina.

There are many others I could list who benefitted (and some still do) from the impact of my parent’s giving, kindness, and compassion: Mr. Clements, Billy, Doris, Vivian, and Clyde. Some needed money, some needed a place to lay their head, some needed food or warm clothes, and some needed services. Typically, they got all that and friendship too.

Parker and her Sister Katherine

What did this teach my sister and me? We have compassion and empathy. We have a desire to give, to help, and we treat everyone with respect. We know there is a back-story that is worth hearing. Like I have, everyone builds his or her own sense of philanthropy and giving. You may create a foundation to provide scholarships in memory of a loved one, participate in a 5K run, build a house, or donate money to tornado victims but no matter what way you choose, there is no wrong way to give! 

A Good Done Great Personal Story: It tastes better with Spinach

I recently traveled out to Good Done Great’s Tacoma, WA office, just south of Seattle. Just a few months into my new role as the VP of Technology Services, my goal was to get to know my West Coast team as our fast-growing company is becoming an industry leader in Corporate Social Responsibility software for large corporations (think Fortune 500 and 1000 companies).

On the way back, I was able to connect in the Atlanta airport in-between flights with our VP of Strategic Partnerships, Christina Bowen (who just so happened to be on en route to meet with an incredibly large credit card provider in DC that will remain nameless). Christina, based in our Denver, CO office, and I were so excited to be able to catch up. What are the odds we would have a layover at the same time in the same place?! We headed up to the Gordon Biersch brewery in Concourse A, with only 32 minutes before boarding started for our flights. We sat down, hoping we could get quick service. Sadly, I had to ask hostess for a server after waiting 10 minutes. As the clock ticked down, only 22 minutes left, the server came by and took our order. When a few minutes passed by and we didn’t have our waters, I started to wonder what was going on. 17 minutes left. Our server came by to tell us that their computer systems were down, they weren’t able to take any orders and recommended we find another place to eat. We just about died laughing at the entire experience, considering both of us are in the business to ensure our own client’s success.

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