Safe Haven: Special Camp Lets Kids Live in the Moment


A clothesline of colored towels flutters like Tibetan prayer flags.
Two campers nap on the sun-warmed sand of the volleyball court. Others
bundle together, all elbows and skinny legs, on a slowly swinging
glider, or sprawl like soft sculptures on couches in the common room of
the youth hostel.

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It is extraordinarily ordinary - the low key commotion of
campers after lunch; yawn and stretch time when everyone seems to be
draped over something, or roaming with lackadaisical abandon among
books, art supplies, game boards, knitting projects and each other.

Ordinary for the 26 children at Camp Safe Haven is a gift - a
privilege bounded by seven days in which they are not stigmatized, not
held apart, not the subject of concern or prejudice. More important, for
a week, they are not treated as if they are their illness. They are just
children like any others, not children with HIV, whose futures have not
been promised.

"We plant ourselves in the moment," says camp director
Tony Lombardi, who cofounded the camp 10 years ago in 1994 with former
western Massachusetts health educator Dave Butler. "I can
guarantee the moment - not much more."

These are children, either infected from birth or other
circumstances, whose daily routine includes an ongoing regimen of
medications. Aged eight to 18, they come from North Carolina,
Washington, D.C., Maryland and New England. Some, waist high and skinny,
refer nonchalantly to their medications - AZT, GCSF - and
can explain the function of medical inhibitors, gastrointestinal ports
and the workings of their immune systems.

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"They get to come to a place where they feel they're not
hurting anyone, not responsible for their family's
concerns," Mr. Lombardi says. "We make them the most
important thing."

Twelve-year-old Monique confidently says the best thing about being
here is being away from home. Gary, 13, and Joshua, 10, shyly say the
afternoon with the Martha's Vineyard Harley Riders was the best.
Abbey, 12, bubbles with enthusiasm about everything, while quiet Myesha,
also 12, seems to view the world with a somber expression. And somehow,
they all fit together.

It is regional high school junior Brie Sylvia's first
experience as a counselor. She admits, "I was really nervous when
I first started. I didn't know if I'd fit in, didn't
know what to expect from the kids. But it's not like it's a
bunch of friends; it's like a family. Everybody looks out for each

The 25 volunteer counselors from around the country, all carefully
selected, pair one on one with campers, switching from one to another so
that everybody learns about each other. As they pause to offer comments,
their words become lyrics to the same song: "very
nurturing," "feels like home," "lots of

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The kids cluster around the counselors, leaning into them, keeping
in contact with hands and arms. By the end of the first day, attachments
have formed and the camp fairly hums with a casual tenderness that sets
it apart from the conventional.

Mr. Lombardi's large Buddah-like presence radiates a
contagious calm. "The whole point is to teach them that they can
be children first," he says, "that this disease is only one
aspect of them. Whatever burdens they carry are left at the boat."

Like earlier that morning in the pool at The Mansion House: mix and
match kids in pool with kick boards and flotation toys, crank up the
decibel level with squeals and shouts and use the counselors like
gymnastic equipment. A slip of a boy, eight-year-old J.P., his torso
bound in plastic wrap, comes out to have someone check that his gastro
port which is used for intravenous feedings remains properly covered. No

Counselor Vina Lindley informs Mr. Lombardi that one of the campers
was teased by three others and is crying in the bathroom. Everyone is
waved over to the edge of the pool where Mr. Lombardi sits, and in the
voice that people use to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, he reminds
them of the need to respect each other: "It's a safe haven,
a family," he tells them.

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They nod, then resume their game of Marco Polo water tag. Mr.
Lombardi looks at the offending three: "Maybe you could help bring
her back," he softly suggests, sending the sufficiently abashed
campers to repair the damage.

Amanda Rush, a counselor for five years, notes, "We give them
a chance to be the best version of themselves."

Like lunch time: A seemingly continuing rhythm of comings and
goings. Someone leaves, another appears in his place. Kids wiggle
patiently in line, about to have as much of everything as they want as
many times as they want it. On this day it's homemade tomato soup
- "One ladle or two?" - tuna sandwiches,
macaroni and cheese, cold cereal, bagels and cream cheese and leftover
pizza. Someone calls out for paper towels - there's a spill
at the serving table. No big deal.

At single sittings they have consumed 40 pounds of potatoes, 240
servings of macaroni and cheese, 10 baked lasagnas and 60 pounds of
turkey - "Unimaginable amounts of food," Mr. Lombardi
says. "Food is always made available because sometimes appetites
don't run on schedule."

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The Safe Haven Project, which costs $30,000 to run, over and above
donations, struggles financially. There is a long waiting list of
applicants, hospitals who contact the camp with names of potential
campers. Forty-two per cent of the people tested who have the HIV virus
are between the ages of 15 and 24, Mr. Lombardi says.

Despite the tight finances, the long list of Vineyard merchants,
organizations and individuals who quietly contribute food, activities
and support is enough to rekindle Island pride: Tilton Rentals, Beth
Kramer and Biga's, who supply all the baked goods, a talent show
at the Chilmark Community Center, a dance at the Atlantic Connection,
games at the Boys' and Girls' Club, karaoke at the PA Club,
tennis (Tennis Center), miniature golf (Island Cove Mini Golf), softball
(MVRHS) and swimming (The Mansion House).

The Harley Riders, who arrange for dinners to be provided, spend a
day treating the children to a cookout and motorcycle rides - a
high point of the week. Individuals like Jocko McCarthy, Pam Benjamin,
Linda DeWitt, Richard Paradise and Joyce Steward are among those who
offer their time and talents.

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Island native Mary Shea has been working at the camp since its
inception as the Vineyard Project, when she was 15. "It's an
automatic family," she says, revealing that she and some other
counselors, referred to as "Safe Heads," have been tattooed
with the Hindu symbol for family. "We do little things for each
other that you don't see any where else. It's

Even medical attention is thoughtfully dispensed so as to make it as
pleasant as possible. Medical times are incorporated into the daily
routine. Often counselors give campers rides on their shoulders to the
medical unit, a converted, decorated recreational vehicle. Most of the
complaints are typical, but taken seriously: colds, sore throats,
bruised knees and scrapes. Campers take pills or liquid medication, some
have to use gastrointestinal tubes should they require intravenous

Medical coordinator Marsha Natalizia from Boston, with the camp nine
years, has installed a precision system: Counselors carry index cards
with medical schedules. The campers' names get checked off as
medications are administered. There are eight registered nurses, among
them Tracy Lessard and Natalina Gomes, who were sent by Family Services
of Rhode Island where they treat adults with HIV.

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No one is rushed, and many campers use the unit as a quiet place to
relax. It's almost time to leave for the Boys' and
Girls' Club to shoot some hoops. But not yet. Myesha is sprawled
on top of the large orange, blue and yellow flowers on the quilt that
covers the bed in the back of the RV. She's on the phone in hushed
tones with her mother, and when she finishes, silently slides into the
booth next to Ms. Lessard, nestles against her, and looks at the world
through serious eyes.

Contributions to the Safe Haven Project can be sent to P.O. Box 24,
Vineyard Haven, MA 02568.