I have a fairly uncommon perspective on HIV today…. It’s because I have been working with HIV+ and affected children – 99% of whom were born infected and have known no other way of life – for nearly 12 years now. My experience began in 2003, when my dear friend Garrett Paulus, who passed away in 2006, recruited me to spend a week as a camp counselor for Sunburst Projects (http://www.sunburstprojects.org).
I won’t lie: I had some trepidation about working closely with, sleeping next to, and caring for a bunch of sick kids in the beginning. Yes, at that time I’d been longtime wonderful friends with many, many poz adults. Perhaps I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to care for the kids in the way that they needed. And perhaps I was a little scared that I could, and that I would really grow to love them.
Well, obviously 12 years later, my thoughts and attitudes have been changed. What I saw that first year, in retrospect, was a list of issues that were created by being born with and growing up carrying the virus. These issues include, but are not limited to, med compliance (and often non-compliance), disclosure, family planning (a teen and young adult related issue). On top of those, there was a wealth of other issues not created by the virus itself, but often walked hand-in-hand with them in the lives of these children and teenagers: socioeconomic hardship, abuse, early pregnancies, gang and other criminal activity, and lack of educational resources.
Can you imagine growing up in a world where everything I listed above was your reality, and being HIV+ to top it all off ???
Would you be considerate of others?
Would you be grateful?
Would you be kind and caring and protective of those around you?
I think, I would find this too difficult.
This isn't to say that these kids enter into camp with all of these high ideals...or the we expect them to. But the camp programming works fairly quickly to elicit these behaviors and responses, and the more often the kids come back, year after year, the faster it works. The camp programming consists of grief counseling, sex-edu, disclosure coaching, and depends heavily upon its volunteers, boasting a 1 counselor to 2 camper ratio to assure that the kids’ medical and psychological needs are being addressed by a trained adult. We also do fun campy things like a talent show (“Messengers of the Heart”), as well as trust walks, outdoor activities, and campfires with S’mores.
Obviously, a week long summer camp is not going to solve all the evils in these kids’ lives. But it makes a surprising dent, even for them to know that they have one week out of the year to play, learn, and openly communicate about their feelings and challenges without stigma or negative repercussion.
It’s pretty fucking amazing if you ask me!- Milla Milojkovic
For more on camp Sunburst Projects please visit there website. (http://www.sunburstprojects.org).
Empowering children, youth and families living with HIV/AIDS
According to AIDS.gov