An Aug. 20 Metro article about a camp near Frederick for youths who have HIV or AIDS said it serves youths from across the country as well as their siblings. The camp is primarily for those in the Washington-Baltimore area; of the 46 campers in the session the article discussed, 43 were from that area. If extra space is available, a camp coordinator said, children from outside that area are sometimes accepted. (Published 8/31/2005)
Ronald Jones gazed at rolling teal foothills tiled with fields and dotted with cherry-red silos standing sentinel among scattered farmhouses. "That's the Potomac River," he said, pointing west toward a glassy squiggle. "One of the things I remember most is the view."
Jones grew up in Northwest Washington and first saw the vista when he was 15 and a camper at Safe Haven, a week-long summer getaway near Frederick for youths from across the country who have HIV and AIDS, as well as for their siblings.
Jones's mother, father and brother are HIV-positive, he said. So when staff members at Children's Hospital recommended Safe Haven, he and his brother piled onto a bus to head to the sleep-away camp.
Jones recalled being nervous, but he ended up liking it so much that he returned every year until graduating from Eastern High School. When he joined the Air Force, he traveled the world -- Kuwait, Germany, South Korea, Japan -- but whenever spring and summer rolled around, he thought of camp.
After Jones was stationed in Arizona last spring, he told his supervisor: "I need to take leave. It's something important." Now, at 21, he is back for the camp's seventh year, volunteering as a counselor while his brother, who will be a senior at a public high school in Southeast, spends his last year as a camper.
The camp, director Tony Lombardi said, tries to create a positive social experience to counteract the stigma that young HIV and AIDS patients face on a daily basis. At Safe Haven, they experience camp like any other youth, while meeting others who have HIV or AIDS outside of a medical setting.
Lombardi, an HIV/AIDS educator and special-education teacher from Massachusetts, recites stories he hears from HIV-positive youths -- of other people refusing to share their cups, drawing back from their handshakes or jumping out of the pool as soon as they hop in. One girl at the other Safe Haven camp, in Massachusetts, was fired from her retail job, lost her friends, dropped out of school and attempted suicide after her sister leaked her health status, Lombardi said.
In the Air Force, Jones said, he gently corrects peers who think HIV can be spread by a mosquito bite or casual touch. "Whenever you have ignorance-based fear, you end up with ignorance-based wisdom," Lombardi said.
As Lombardi spoke, two girls meticulously braided the hair of counselors. A tight-knit circle of campers played clapping games; losing count, two missed each other's hands and broke into raucous laughter. A little boy shot baskets, and other campers clamored for piggyback rides from counselors.
The 44 campers, ranging in age from 7 to 17, were roughly an equal split of girls and boys.
Those from the District cited their career plans, which included screenwriter, scientist and special-education teacher. They have not fully disclosed their HIV status to the wider world, and, respecting that, the camp does not allow outsiders to interview them or give their names. Theirs are the youthful faces of the HIV epidemic in the District, where a study recently released by the D.C. Appleseed Center for Law and Justice estimated the HIV rate at one in 20, the highest in the nation.
Some campers had withered limbs or tired easily, and the two camps have lost several campers to AIDS-related illnesses, Lombardi said. Nevertheless, "The more time I spend with them, the more I realize they're just like me or any other kid," counselor Muhammad Ashraf, 19, said.
Jones echoed Ashraf, emphasizing that although the disease should not be minimized, his brother is a "basic 18-year-old" who likes sports, video games, movies and music and is gearing up to tackle college applications.
Safe Haven cannot be the same as a non-specialized camp. When counselors come down with a cough, they wear masks to avoid infecting campers. The nursing station is "always hopping," said camp coordinator Katherine Miller-Holland of Lutheran Social Services, which operates the camp with the Safe Haven Project, which is co-directed by Lombardi and founder Dave Butler.
Nursing coordinator Tammy Pittayathikhun said staff members steer clear of scrubs and hospital decor. Often, campers relax on couches with oversized pillows in the softly lighted nursing cabin, where charts and boxes of medication are kept. A supply of Dentyne Fire gum and Kool-Aid cuts the taste of medicine, which Lombardi describes as "cherry-flavored, tongue-numbing raw sewage." Some campers take as many as 20 doses a day.
On Thursday morning, Washington AIDS International Teens, an HIV-prevention performing arts group for youths, came to Safe Haven. The day before, campers went on a scavenger hunt and to a minor-league baseball game, seeing the Frederick Keys defeat the Potomac Nationals.
On Thursday, campers crowded into the pavilion, where performers broke into wild break dancing with back flips, handsprings and dives. Other pieces followed, and the campers snapped pictures of hip-hop moves and twirling red fans as singers split into multi-part harmony.
After the last act, the performers blasted music over the speakers and invited the campers to come up. At the urging of Jones and other counselors, some campers started break dancing. One of Jones's campers descended from his wheelchair onto the floor, shook his head sheepishly and did the wave for a few seconds. "Do it again! Do it again!" the others shouted.
This time around, his strong arms lifted his lower body into the air. Slowly, he raised himself higher. "Do it!" they yelled.
He hit a handstand and steadied himself, cracking an upside-down smile as fellow campers burst into applause.