Spirits soar at special children's camp - Catholic Courier

Spirits soar at special children’s camp

ITALY VALLEY — Dealing with AIDS each day is a topic that Ian Welch shares “only with friends that I know really well,” he said.

Ian, whose father has AIDS, said he doesn’t discuss that fact openly at school because “kids judge on everything” and rumors could start that he, also, has an HIV-related illness (he doesn’t.)

Yet no such judgments exist at Camp SOAR, a Catholic Charities-sponsored program for children affected by HIV/AIDS. The camp, held each summer at Camp Koinonia in Yates County, took place Aug. 1-5 this year.

“Every day is special around here. It’s real fun, real relaxed,” said Ian, 16, a Rochester resident.

That fun was evident on the morning of Aug. 2 — from the shrieks of children playing “Marco Polo” in the camp pool, to the sweaty gang playing volleyball under the hot sun, to campers inside a pavilion painting wood blocks for an arts-and-crafts project, to the happy chatter when everyone gathered for lunch.

Many other activities were packed into the camp’s five-day time frame. Among them were kickball, African drumming, Frisbee golf, cosmetology, martial arts, nature hiking, a magic show, a talent show and a trip to Roseland Water Park in nearby Canandaigua.

This package of fun fit the bill for Leo Huie, 10, of Rochester. In addition to swimming and “boondoggle” — weaving a cord of braided material — his favorite part of camp was the fact that “I go to bed at 10 (p.m.),” he said. Leo’s normal bedtime at home is two hours earlier.

Camp SOAR, begun in 1998, is open to children ages 6 to 14. Six of this year’s 44 campers were HIV-positive, carrying the virus that causes AIDS. Remaining campers took part because they either have a family member with an AIDS-related disease or a loved one who has died from AIDS. Regardless of the circumstances that brought them there, “we treat all the kids the same,” said Jane Hallinen, Camp SOAR’s longtime director.

Most campers, such as Ian and Leo, come from the City of Rochester. Because of their urban background, these campers “can do a lot of things they can’t do at home,” pointed out Tom Flugel, the current camp director.

By being isolated in the heart of Finger Lakes country for a week, campers escape a different kind of isolation: that set by society’s perception of HIV/AIDS. Hallinen, who serves as director of AIDS Services for diocesan Catholic Charities Community Services, said the disease is often connected to drug use or male homosexual activity, and “neither are socially acceptable.” She noted that HIV can also be transmitted through heterosexual contact.

AIDS develops when the body’s immune system weakens to the point that it can’t fight off certain infections. To date there is no known cure for the disease, which was first detected in the 1980s. HIV is most commonly transmitted by sexual contact with an HIV-positive person, by sharing a needle or syringe with somebody who is HIV-infected, or by mother-to-infant transmission during pregnancy, childbirth or breast-feeding.

Another potential form of transmittal is if HIV-infected blood comes in contact with an open wound or sore. Hallinen pointed out that Camp SOAR’s staff handles cuts and other injuries involving HIV blood the same as for anyone — by acting promptly and using rubber gloves.

The HIV virus cannot be transmitted by sharing food or eating utensils or through hugging, kissing, coughing, sneezing, mosquitoes or other insects. But Hallinen acknowledged that many in the general public still fear they’ll catch the HIV infection simply by being around people who are HIV-positive, even though she said it’s nearly impossible to become infected unless you’re having sex or sharing a needle with an infected person.

Because misunderstandings and other barriers still exist, Hallinen said Camp SOAR is vital in providing children with an understanding environment. Many campers also know each other from support groups in the community.

“The HIV family is a very close-knit family,” Hallinen said.

Hallinen served as director of Camp SOAR from its inception until last year, although she has continued her involvement while turning the directorship over to Flugel.

“She’s got a lot of passion and heart for this,” Flugel said.

Camp SOAR has proven so popular that many campers are repeat participants. In fact, many of this year’s staff — more than 30 people in all — are former Camp SOAR campers.

Ian, for one, has never missed a camp. This year was his second as a counselor-in-training, meaning he’ll be a full-fledged counselor at the next Camp SOAR. By that time, he’ll surely be itching to get back with his friends at Camp Koinonia.

“You may only get to see some of these people one time a year,” he explained.

Another benefit of Camp SOAR is the availability of counselors so that campers can discuss whatever struggles they’re facing. Ian said that while this offering is important, youths such as himself look forward to Camp SOAR mostly for having a good time, not dwelling on the subject of HIV/AIDS.

“Most people come here to get away from it,” he remarked.

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