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November 26, 2004

Kids touched by HIV get the break they need at Sunrise

 

Columbus--Remember how hard middle school was? When you�re becoming a teenager, being accepted is so important. Remember all the things that suddenly caused pressure: clothes, friends, who to sit with at lunch, sports and activities?

Think about all the stressors in and out of school when growing up. To them, add taking enormous amounts of medicine every few hours, having stomach problems that make one leave the classroom unexpectedly, explaining why mom or dad is never at school, or why he or she is always sick, hoping other kids don�t think you are contagious, feeling the need to convince others it�s okay to touch or just play with you, trying to comprehend the importance of protease inhibitors, medical cocktails, and possibly even a short life expectancy.

That�s a world I cannot even imagine, or frankly even wrap my brain around enough to even fathom how much many children put up with on a daily basis. But it certainly helps motivate me to help them get to Camp Sunrise for one week every summer to have a break from this.

Camp Sunrise is held in August for children that are either have HIV or AIDS, are living with a family member with it, or are grieving the loss of a family member due to AIDS. The week at camp is not another forum for these kids to learn about the disease. It is exactly what the kids need--a week of summer camp.

Riding horses, creating artwork, playing outside, singing and dancing, making friends, having fun, and building relationships are the core activities at Camp Sunrise. In order to supply these kids with an absolute sense of acceptance and understanding, a place is created where everyone belongs. Every camper and staff member knows why he or she is going to camp, so there is suddenly a small place in these campers� lives where secrecy, apprehension and shame are not present. Instead, the campers are inundated with laughter, love, and respect. Even though camp is only for a week, these kids take it with them wherever they go.

I have been the director of Camp Sunrise for over four years now, and I am still amazed at how many people cannot see why it is just as important to help the children that have the disease as it is those that live with or grieve the loss of a family member with AIDS.

When you learn of a child that has cancer, you are obviously devastated. Your first thought is not, �I wonder how they got it.� This is the difference between a child dealing with HIV and a child dealing with any other disease.

Almost seventy percent of the children that attend camp are not infected with the disease. They are, however, affected. Confusion, anger and grief can soon become overwhelming to them. When a child is sick, he or she has caretakers to help them work through the physical aspect of the disease. When a well child is growing up around that constant stress, he is sometimes put in the background to the person who is physically sick. Many times, she has to take on the role of the caretaker, either for a sick parent or sibling, or younger siblings of a sick parent. This will not change, because families usually work hard to help one another, but having some sort of respite from this life is something that will continue to occur.

Camp Sunrise just celebrated its tenth year. Some of the children that attended the very first one in 1995 attended this past season also. Other campers and staff members have become a much-needed support system for hundreds of children. The year-round program that was implemented only three years ago is another way to help these kids see one another throughout the year. No one else can understand what it�s like to go through this, not even staff members, but the campers can.

Every year Camp Sunrise has grown. This past August, 121 campers came from all over Ohio, as well as 69 staff members, with 67 of them volunteering their time. Staff members from ten states gave nine days to volunteer for camp, as well as provide their own transportation to and from Ohio. The only thing more amazing than how many people it takes to make this program work is that it is done completely with volunteers. The volunteer staff is comprised of people 21 and over who are doctors, teachers, social workers, business owners, and every other walk of life.

Each year we begin raising funds for the following season on the very day we return from camp. The entire budget for the administration and all of the programming is just over $150,000 a year. Though this is a modest amount compared to many nonprofit organizations, it is still a constant struggle to raise these funds. The camp, however, will take place as long as it is needed. There are too many people that have witnessed the remarkable change and relief of the children that attend the camp. The kids that attend this camp want to return every year. They�ve expressed how much they�ve gained from being able to relax and play for a week. However, the adults leave with even more. The volunteers know that it�s quite a rarity to have a place where compassion and unconditional love are the norm.

Camp Sunrise 2005 will be from August 14-20, with staff training occurring on August 12 and 13, on the entire campus of a YMCA camp in southwest Ohio. Interested volunteers or donors may contact executive director Katy Finklea at 614-2978404, director@sunrisekids.org, or via the web site at www.sunrisekids.org.

Friends of Camp Sunrise was recently begun to help secure funding. Anyone interested in becoming a contributor to this program should contact Finklea at the information above or visit the web site.

Katy Finklea is the executive director of Camp Sunrise.

 

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