From Aug. 20-27, 2016, over 100 youth affected by HIV/AIDS will attend Camp Dreamcatcher, the only therapeutic camp program of its kind on the East Coast, at Camp Saginaw in southern Chester County.
Approximately 130 youth between the ages of five and 25 attend the camp each year. There are therapeutic, educational, and recreational sessions.
Last August, there were 64 therapeutic sessions, including psychotherapy, music therapy, art therapy, acupuncture, massage, and more.
There were also 50 educational sessions on HIV/AIDS, body image, abuse, conflict resolution, suicide prevention, and more.
New programs were run by the Adolescent Awareness Foundation, Minding your Mind, and the Chester County Public Defender’s Office.
There were also 140 recreational programs, including swimming, arts/crafts, moon bounces, concerts, go-kart racing, canoeing, horseback riding, an annual dance and talent show, a science program from the Franklin Institute, and more.
“We want to give the children and adolescents attending our programs the chance to feel free from the secret of HIV/AIDS and have fun–just like any other kids,” said Patty Hillkirk, executive director of the camp.
Camp Dreamcatcher is seeking volunteers.
“You will make a positive difference in the lives of children coping with HIV/AIDS, and this will be a life-changing experience for you. Seventy percent of our counselors have been volunteering for 10-20 years with us and they come back every year because the camp session is such a life-affirming, positive place,” said Hillkirk.
To get involved, students can volunteer or fulfill their internships there. They can be full-time or part-time volunteers during the camp session, Aug. 20-27, 2016.
Students can also volunteer at the Camp Dreamcatcher office in Kennett Square, at a fundraising event, or at one of the many other programs.
If interested in volunteering, students can contact Hillkirk at firstname.lastname@example.org or 610-925-2998. They can find volunteering opportunities on at campdreamcatcher.org and apply to be a camp counselor in late Jan. 2016.
Camp counselors are required to attend two and a half days of HIV/AIDS and diversity training before camp begins, according to Hillkirk.
West Chester University students have been frequent volunteers with Camp Dreamcatcher over the years.
“In 1997, the WCU Greeks made a commitment to raise funds for Camp Dreamcatcher, and over $350,000 has been raised by WCU students. I am so grateful to have the support of the WCU community,” said Hillkirk.
At Camp Dreamcatcher, the number of children accepted to the programs each year is based on the amount of resources secured. WCU students have been a big part of successfully raising resources.
“WCU students have changed the lives of hundreds of children coping with HIV/AIDS, and I am honored to work with them each year,” said Hillkirk.
Of course, Camp Dreamcatcher is not simply a summer camp. It also provides outreach and education programs about HIV/AIDS to middle schools, high schools, and universities. There is a Teen Speaker’s Bureau which attends these programs and shares personal stories.
These outreach and education programs happen throughout the country.
Hillkirk said, “There is still a stigma associated with HIV/AIDS and one of the goals of our outreach and education programs is to dispel the myths associated with the disease.”
Volunteers can also work with the Camp Dreamcatcher Mentoring program. The program was founded in 2013 by a WCU alumnus. It matches a mentor, who is usually a Camp Dreamcatcher counselor, with a mentee, a camper who is between the ages of 17 and 25. Together, they work towards a particular goal for one year.
Those interested in volunteering with the program can contact Executive Director Patty Hillkirk. Interested volunteers must complete an application and mentor training before being matched in the program.
For the past 13 years, Camp Dreamcatcher has also run a Teen Leadership retreat for youth ages 15-17 impacted by HIV/AIDs. It is held on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and offers a mixture of programs. It offers leadership opportunities and some participants go on to become Leaders in Training during the camp session.
Camp Dreamcatcher also has an Adopt-a-Family program which is happening right now.
“Ninety seven percent of the HIV/AIDS impacted youth served by Camp Dreamcatcher are from low-income households, and most of the families do not have extra funds for gifts for their children,” said Hillkirk.
Wishlists are sent to the families and then to the donors.
Last year, 120 children were given gifts from this program at a holiday party. This year, that party will take place at the Kennett Area YMCA on Dec. 6 from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. In the past, WCU students have attended and helped out at the party.
Camp Dreamcatcher also runs family advocacy and support programs in Pa., Del., N.Y., N.J., Va., and Md.
This includes helping families with transportation to appointments, working with social services agencies, counseling, helping with homelessness, and more.
About the name of the camp, Hillkirk said, “I have always loved Native American traditions and especially the story of the Dreamcatcher. In 1995, I had a dream to create a therapeutic and safe community for children coping with HIV/AIDS, and I have been fortunate enough to see my dream come true.”
She also said, “The true reason that Camp Dreamcatcher has been a success has been because of the loving dedication of our volunteers, many of which are WCU alumni and students. With only 1 ½ staff and 300 volunteers, we truly are a volunteer based organization.”
Theresa Kelly is a fourth-year student majoring in English literature secondary education. She can be reached at TK780615@wcupa.edu.