For most kids, summer camp is that one time of year when their backyard fantasies and lightning bug dreams become a reality. It’s the one week when they are allowed to wear pajamas to the dinner table and eat popcorn for breakfast, and are obligated to dance around the table before they’ve cleaned their plates. Every child should get the chance to experience the simple pleasures of camp. All summer long the squeals of laughter and cries brought on by skinned knees can be heard from all over this country. But for the kids at Camp Starlight, it is nothing short of magic.
For 15 years, Camp Starlight has created a summer haven for kids who are affected by HIV. Whether they are HIV-positive or have felt the hardships of having a parent or family member who is living with the disease, these children all travel to camp with something truly worth escaping: HIV stigma.
While the physical location may be somewhere close to Salem, Ore., the already majestic, wooded landscape of Camp Starlight is transformed into something closer to a childhood fairy tale. Each day is filled with repeat-after-me songs, bows and arrows, canoeing trips, and horseback rides. No matter what they came with (and sometimes it isn’t much), every child is given anything and everything they need to make this one week nothing short of perfect.
As I'm the founder of the Needle Prick Project, the duality of this heartbreakingly beautiful summer camp piqued my interest. Although I was aware of the far-reaching effects of HIV stigma, the impact the disease had on today’s youth was one that I had yet to explore. So my sister and I packed our bug spray, a pack of Band-Aids, a box of crayons, and our camera equipment and headed west to see what Camp Starlight was all about.
I will admit I had a predisposition when arriving at camp. When the kids arrived I expected to be overwhelmed with emotions and flooded with just the right words to capture this environment that comes with a very special disclaimer. As I began to put the campers’ clothes into their temporary homes, I kept waiting for it to bubble up. I might have even tried to force a sentimental wave or two, but it never really happened.
Why? Because these kids are just like any other campers who get to spend a week away from strict bedtimes and mandatory vegetables. It didn’t matter that a common thread bound them outside the shelter of the Oregon forest. For this week, their favorite camp song and ice cream flavor, and whether they wanted to swim or canoe is what defines these children, not the sad story that led them there. Every other week of the year, Camp Starlight is a camp for kids who are affected by HIV. During Camp Starlight, it's just camp.
While this was a wonderful discovery, I was a camp counselor on a particular mission. And while I fell in love with each and every camper, these children and their experiences were sacred only for the sake of leaving the experience ordinarily extraordinary. However, I still was looking for a way to capture the magic. With a name like Camp Starlight, all I had to do was look up to find just what I was searching for… but these stars were much closer to the ground.
It takes nothing short of a movement to create an environment where these children can discuss HIV in a safe and nonjudgmental place if they choose to do so while also being free of the weight that it carries. The camp organizers, counselors, and other staff members work all year to create this singular week of stigma-free majestic bliss. Each year, producing the camp seems like an almost impossible task.
From the endless fundraising to making sure that each counselor understands the gravity of their role, the leadership behind Camp Starlight works tirelessly to produce the impossible and make sure each camper has what they need, both emotional and physical. No matter what shade of bleak the child’s background may be (and it can be extreme), the people at Camp Starlight make sure there is nothing left to be wanted.
As I recall my camp memories, I have no sob story to give you about the hardships that these children face in the shadow of HIV. That is because the people of Camp Starlight have created a place where these kids get to live the life that HIV robs them of. The emotion only came once the last camper had turned in for the night. The counselors would gather around the campfire in front of the painted wooden stage. As they drank endless coffee and ate leftover pastries, there was an unspoken bond built from the simple joy that transpired throughout the day. Their wary but happy faces gazed back at mine, and all of a sudden it made perfect sense. The emotion, the pain, and the hardship that these children endure year-round had never left, but for this week it was the counselors’ burden to bear. And they did it happily.
HIV stigma can often be thought of as an adults-only problem. Many will carelessly spout language that aims at damaging adults living with the disease and neglect to realize that their words trickle far past the 18-and-up crowd. But whether we are discussing someone who is 17 or someone who is 70, the morality call of who “deserves” it more is what continues to further stigma. The truth is, no one deserves HIV or the effects of HIV stigma.
The children at Camp Starlight shouldn’t need special treatment or have their stories weigh heavier on your heart than anyone else whose life has been impacted by this disease. Just like anyone else, they should be viewed as the person they really are, no matter how bratty or sweet that may be.
But what every child deserves is a week where real life is abandoned, costumes aren’t just for Halloween, and every day involves a cannonball.
To the volunteers of Camp Starlight, you have forever changed my life.
To the kids of camp, “I said a-boom-chica-boom!”
The Needle Prick Project is a video, photo, and editorial project designed to elicit a conversation about what it means to be HIV-positive today. We all fear the prick of the needle, but it’s the medicine we need.
For more on Camp Starlight or to make a donation, visit Camp-Starlight.org.
TYLER CURRY created the Needle Prick Project as an editorial and visual campaign to elicit a candid and open conversation on what it means to be HIV-positive today. To learn more about the Needle Prick Project, visit www.facebook.com/getpricked or follow Tyler Curry on Twitter at @iamtylercurry.