HOUSTON - Children across Texas, who live with HIV or AIDS, depend on a special camp every year, to get together with others who understand what they're going through. Established in 1996, Camp Hope provides a healthy and secure environment for HIV-positive kids aged 7 to 16 to develop the skills necessary to manage a life with HIV/AIDS.
It's usually a week-long camp in the Houston area, but like many camps, had to turn virtual this year. Camp Hope was the very first camp for HIV-positive children in Texas and for the past 25 years it featured exhilarating zip-lines, gooey marshmallow roasts, poolside playtime, everything you'd expect at summer camp.
Camp Counselor Tiffany Quinton is sad that the annual event had to go virtual but understands all too well that they had to be safe for themselves and the children. Diagnosed with HIV over 25 years ago Tiffany tells us, "I turned 52 on my birthday so I've lived half my life living with HIV"
She wasn't born with HIV, like many of the kids who go to camp, but she can relate with them and provide ideas about how they can better deal with the disease. Even though there are incredible medications available today, Tiffany says that COVID-19 is a bigger concern for her and all of these children, more than others who might not have a health concern, "I try to make sure that my home is safe first, and then I go and do what I need to do and am prepared before I leave the house."
The same is true for many campers, and at their virtual camp, they received important lessons from counselors, including reminders to always take their medicine, suggestions about how to reveal their status in relationships, even how to deal with the stigma of HIV.
When the camp started decades ago, the Medical Director Dr. Tess Barton says most children with HIV were weak and frail, "We've actually seen a lot of shifts over time. So, in recent years, mostly because of improvements in available pediatric treatments, most of our campers are actually doing quite well and are generally healthy with only mild immune deficiencies."
"It used to be that we had kids who are on tons and tons of pills and tons of medications and really ill and actually our kids are doing great, which is fantastic because it means that they really get to enjoy camp more and not have to be quite as burdened while they're at camp, but they still have a chronic disease and they still have medications that they have to take every single day. At this point, the rest of their lives, until a cure becomes available, they still struggle with maintaining it."
Many of these children, even the ones who don't know their HIV diagnosis yet, know that they are different from their friends. hey take medicine every day, they are often smaller than other kids and are puberty-delayed compared to other kids. These are some of the side effects that can leave them with a sense of being different, so being in a group where everyone is in a similar situation can be very empowering and confidence-building for them.
Ashey Chabud wanted to help empower the children, so she became a camp counselor and she made sure it wasn't entirely a virtual camp this year, by sending goodies to the campers.
"I'd already picked my cabin theme I usually have like 10 and 11-year-old girls we were going to be the flamingos. I have a few things that I've been getting throughout the year anytime I saw it was cute, so I just reached out to my two co-counselors and we did a zoom call and texted and sent pictures of things,
and they shipped everything to me - and then I kind of packaged it all together."
Then AIDS Foundation Houston shipped the goody bags to virtual campers, with everything from tie-dye shirts to arts and crafts, games, and more.
Virtual camp was fun but plans are already moving forward to next year. Camp Hope Director, Kevin Anderson reveals, " This year we had planned on really implementing some positive changes that our multi-disciplinary team had helped us with and we were going to have a new leadership institute that we were introducing to our campers that have aged-out of camp in order to begin their journey into adulthood. And this was the first year that we were actually going to start bringing in our siblings to camp. So, in 2021, we're really looking forward to the expansion of this programming."
It costs a thousand dollars to send each child to camp every year, you can learn more about getting involved by visiting the Camp Hope page on the AIDS Foundation Houston website.