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HIV Summer Camps Rethink Their Identities

Camp Sunrise in Clinton County has seen a steep decline in enrollment. hiv summer camp
Paula Katz
Camp Sunrise

In the mid 1990s, summer camps for kids affected by the AIDS epidemic sprang up all over the country. Today there are about 20 summer camps for kids who are HIV positive or whose lives have been affected by HIV/AIDS. But advances in treatment and prevention mean there are fewer campers now, so these camps have an uncertain future.


Lunchtime at Camp Sunrise, Ohio’s only summer camp for kids infected with or affected by HIV/AIDS, is a raucous affair. There’s singing, clapping, stomping and gettin’ down as campers challenge anyone and everyone to “Jump! Jump! Shake your booty!”


The camp in rural Clinton County is just like any other camp—except for Club Med. That’s the nurses station where Band-Aids and antiretroviral medications are handed out.


Leo Kennedy, the camp’s administrator, says when the camp started 21 years ago there were some pretty sick kids. That was in 1995, and some of the campers who were HIV positive back then have passed away over the years. They were often not able to participate in all the programs the camp ran due to the severity of their illness.


But since then, there have been major improvements in treatment, such as drug cocktails that suppress the virus.

“During the years it has really changed,” says Kennedy. “You will not even notice when the kids are actually positive.”

And since the mid 1990s, the number of babies born with HIV in the U.S. has gone down dramatically—to fewer than 200 each year, according to the National Institutes of Health.This good news presents a dilemma for Camp Sunrise, and the handful of camps like it around the country: fewer kids infected with or affected by AIDS means fewer campers.


Camp Sunrise staff in 2015
Credit Camp Sunrise staff
Camp Sunrise staff in 2015

At Camp Corazones in New Mexico, not one of the 40 kids attending the camp this summer was HIV positive, and campers affected by AIDS had to be recruited from as far away as El Paso, Texas. Dr. Tamara Singleton, the camp’s medical director, has a possible solution.

“These camps are set up in a way that has developed a wonderfully supportive community, and I believe one of the options would be to make these camps more inclusive,” she says. Dr. Singleton thinks they could reach out to other vulnerable kids who are dealing with diabetes, obesity, substance abuse and other health problems. “Instead of excluding and becoming smaller, to become more inclusive, and grow in this supportive model of therapy.”


Back in the 1990s, Camp Sunrise in Ohio served 120 kids. This year there were 64, butthat’s upfrom last year. Camp director Keiffer Erdmann says a new relationship with AIDS Resource Center Ohio has helped.

“ARC Ohio and the FACES program at Children’s Hospital in Columbus has really done a lot of outreach and efforts at educating family members and trying to break down that stigma,” he says, which has been bringing more kids into the camp.


Camps for kids affected by AIDS are needed still, despite the numbers. “Andrea” (that’s not her real name) is 19 years old. She’s been coming to Camp Sunrise since she was about ten, but there was a time a few years ago when she was in a low place, and she’d stopped taking her medication.

“Then I realized, oh my gosh, I don’t want my camp family coming to my funeral,” she says. “They really love me.”


Camp helped “Andrea” turn it around, and now she’s a junior counselor.

“I feel like if I can talk to anybody that has it, and tell them my story, then I feel like I can make a difference,” she says. “That’s what I really want to do.”

She says that camp is the place where she realized other people’s lives were like hers—and that’s what saved her.

Jocelyn Robinson is a Yellow Springs, Ohio-based educator, media producer, and radio preservationist. As an educator, Robinson has taught transdisciplinary literature courses incorporating critical cultural theory and her scholarship in self-definition and identity. She also teaches community-based and college-level classes in digital storytelling and narrative journalism.
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